South Asia

Attempting a 'Grand Synthesis' of Pakistan's History and Present

Pervez Hoodbhoy makes entertaining observations on the many faces of Pakistan’s Muslim identity in the course of its elusive and futile quest for an Islamic state.

In a poignant and deeply prescient essay titled ‘The Messiah and The Promised Land’, the American photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White, who had been assigned by Life magazine to tour India on the eve of independence in 1947, wondered what led Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his final months to a ‘dismaying withdrawal into himself’.

Bourke-White, the first foreign journalist to be granted an interview with Jinnah after the creation of Pakistan in August 1947, noted that his once famed ‘Olympian assurance’ appeared to have ‘strangely withered’ and been replaced by a ‘spiritual numbness concealing something close to panic underneath’. While she acknowledged that the acute difficulties facing Jinnah as he steered his economically vulnerable state and prepared it for war with India over Kashmir may have been to blame, neither could explain his ‘tortured appearance’.

Pervez Hoodbhoy
Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future
Routledge, 2023

She suspected that the sources of his anxiety lay deeper. “Jinnah,” she wrote, “knew what he had done. Like Doctor Faustus, he had made a bargain from which he could never be free. During the heat of the struggle, he had been willing to call on all the devilish forces of superstition, and now that his new nation had been achieved the bigots were in the position of authority. The leaders of orthodoxy…had the final word and…were seeing to it that the people were held in the deadening grip of religious superstition.”

Bourke-White’s suggestion that Jinnah had instrumentalised the language of religion to service his political cause continues to resonate to this day, fuelling controversy among his followers. Those who regard Pakistan as the modern expression of the prototypical Islamic state remain convinced that Jinnah’s appeal to religion reflected his desire for a homeland where Muslims would be governed by the laws of Islam. Others, wary of this theocratic reading of Pakistan, insist that Jinnah’s invocation of Islam was intended primarily to promote a secular enterprise that would free Muslims from the domination of a Hindu majority poised to capture political power with the exit of Britain from India.

These diverging positions have been impossible to reconcile and still tax the minds of many a historian and social scientist wrestling with the roots of the world’s first self-consciously created Muslim state and its uncertain trajectory.  Their difficulties have been compounded by Jinnah’s own carefully cultivated ambivalence about the role of Islam in the political space he envisioned as Pakistan and its relationship to the definition of Pakistan’s national identity.

The latest to step in with his bold intervention to settle these questions is the Pakistani nuclear physicist, political activist and well known commentator on current affairs, Pervez Hoodbhoy. He aims at nothing less than a “grand synthesis”, which he declares “should rightly have been written by a full blooded historian of South Asia”. But the paucity of “scrupulously honest” historians capable of “sticking to facts” or resisting “the needs of power”, he tells us, left him impatient. He had no choice because “no one has really tried to understand just why the theory of two distinct nations [Hindus and Muslims] emerged” to result in two separate, warring states – India and Pakistan.

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Hoodbhoy’s claims are sure to raise a few eyebrows if not the hackles of some Pakistani scholars at home and abroad who will resent his cavalier treatment of their contributions; some may even choose to repay him in kind by dismissing his efforts as no better than an exercise in polemics. This would be a mistake. For Hoodbhoy deserves to be heard and his arguments carefully appraised.

Much of Hoodbhoy’s five-part narrative of Pakistan’s historical roots, its intellectual antecedents, contested sovereignty, dysfunctional politics and less-than-promising outlook covers ground that will already be familiar to most academic specialists of Pakistan. What is new is the spirited interrogation of this complex terrain contained in questions such as ‘Was Partition Worth the Prize?’ or ‘Does the Ideology of Pakistan Matter?’ even if the answers produced are vague. And while Hoodbhoy’s strident and prosecutorial tone may jar at times, the questions he poses are worth asking and go far towards unsettling comfortable assumptions about the origins of Pakistan and the role of its founding fathers.

That said, some will wonder how seriously to take Hoodbhoy’s idea that the two-nation theory can be settled through DNA research into the communities of the Indian subcontinent or the suggestion that Muhammad Iqbal’s ambivalence about Reason might be responsible for the collapse of the scientific disciplines in Pakistan. Neither does much to account for the enduring appeal of the two-nation theory or the egregious neglect of public education in Pakistan. They may however amplify Hoodbhoy’s belief in the power of a scientific approach to resolve complex human problems and to convey his profound despair over the erosion of free inquiry in Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Other lapses are more serious – a hazard perhaps of failing to comb through important new work more diligently. For example, Hoodbhoy’s recourse to the familiar portrayal of 19thcentury Indian Muslims paralysed by nostalgia for “the glory days of Mughal India” would surely need some revision in the light of Akbar Zaidi’s recent, deeply researched study on the notion of zillat (utter humiliation) and its transformation by north Indian Muslims – judged as the original drivers of the movement for Pakistan – from a cry of lamentation to an ‘agentive force’. Therein we see the source of Indo-Muslim renewal and reform, but also of much discursive fragmentation.

Indeed, Hoodbhoy could have used the absence of a discursive consensus over the terms of ‘Islam’ among Indian Muslims in the late colonial period not only to expose the limitations of the putative ‘Muslim community’ that was said to inform the demand for Pakistan, but also to explain why the chronic lack of consensus over Islam has served – paradoxically – to thwart the emergence of an Islamic state in Pakistan.  Given the Pakistani state’s long-standing dalliance with the purveyors of Islam, Hoodbhoy’s question: ‘Why Couldn’t Pakistan Become an Islamic State?’ is well taken. But readers looking for an answer will be disappointed. For Hoodbhoy’s real focus as it turns out is: ‘What If Pakistan Becomes An Islamic State?’ In this he ends up rehearsing many of the damaging consequences of an Islamic State for the future of a multi-cultural Pakistan and its citizens, which have already been widely discussed elsewhere.

There are, however, some compensations to be had. They come as entertaining observations on the many faces of Pakistan’s Muslim identity in the course of its elusive and futile quest for an Islamic state. With his keen wit to hand, Hoodbhoy skewers these ill-fated experiments, ranging from Pakistan’s desire for Arab roots – defined here as the ‘Arab Wannabe Syndrome’ – to its absurd adoption of a Turkish television hero, Ertugrul Ghazi, founder of the Ottoman empire, as the engine of a new Riyasat-e-Medina (state of Medina) under the guardianship of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

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These injections of humour should not, however, obscure the seriousness of Hoodbhoy’s enterprise.  Some of his most thoughtful analyses are reserved for what he calls the ‘angularities’ – the humps and bumps – of Pakistan’s ethnic, linguistic, religious and sectarian differences, which have been seen to stand in the way of national cohesion. The trend was set by Jinnah, who in his inaugural address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on the eve of independence on 11 August 1947 expressed the hope that, in the course of time, these ‘angularities’ would yield to an over-arching national consensus bound by a single religion, Islam, and a common language, Urdu. Jinnah lived barely long enough to see his hopes dashed or to witness the honing of these ‘angularities’ in the face of an increasingly authoritarian and centralised state.

By far their greatest toll was exacted in the form of Bengali ethno-nationalism. Decades of cultural alienation, combined with systematic economic and political discrimination at the hands of a dominant Punjabi-led ruling establishment, had sharpened the ‘angularity’ of the Bengali-speaking majority before the dagger was finally drawn to bifurcate the state in 1971. No lessons were learnt from this trauma of national disintegration nor has there been any desire to learn. “To this very day,” Hoodbhoy declares, “with very few exceptions, there has been no soul-searching.” Even the Pakistani Left fell short of an honest reckoning. Hoodbhoy is forced to conclude that “the power of ideology in suppressing human impulses should never be under-estimated”.

It is no wonder then that other ‘angularities’ have continued to fracture Pakistan’s national landscape. Hoodbhoy’s discussion of the evolution of Baloch nationalism is a testament to this and to the enduring inflexibility of the Pakistani state. While he appears to rule out the prospect of Balochistan’s secession, the scale and intensity of state repression in a province that is “too [mineral] rich to be left alone” leaves him in no doubt about the corrosive effects of this conflict on the viability of Pakistan’s federation.

The angularities of religious and sectarian discord also receive attention. Hoodbhoy offers a clear-eyed account of the onward march of discrimination against Pakistan’s religious minorities – notably Ahmadis, who are arbitrarily defined as such, but also Shias – and lays bare deepening fissures within the Sunni Muslim majority. All seem intent on tearing apart the country’s fragile culture of tolerance.

This sombre diagnosis of Pakistan’s malaise sets the stage for Hoodbhoy to unveil his plan for a way forward. It ranks as no less ambitious than his opening gambit to furnish ‘a grand synthesis’ and proposes, by way of an idea that has outlived its usefulness, to sweep away the two-nation theory and replace it by “a Single Nation Theory – one that has a logical basis and that officially espouses equality before the law for all citizens of Pakistan”.

But doing so would also require the fulfilment of what Hoodbhoy calls his ‘wish-list’: ending legalised discrimination; ensuring equitable distribution; implementing decentralisation; ‘uncaging’ women; privileging skills over religious instruction; ‘cooling down Kashmir’; and consigning the Army to barracks.

It is hard not to share these high aspirations. But it is harder still to know if Hoodbhoy’s choice of the word ‘wish-list’ was consciously intended to serve as a reminder of its image as the repository of unrealisable dreams and objects of desire that are, arguably, beyond the reach of Pakistan as we know it.

Farzana Shaikh is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and author of Community and Consensus in Islam and Making Sense of Pakistan.