Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman
Professor Ian Talbot sets out with a promise to study Pakistan “in its own terms”. Lest this gives any false notions, his book, Pakistan: A New History, is not an account that goes easy on politicians. Aside from this being a critique of the saviours in uniform, the Bhuttos and other elected rulers also get smart raps on their knuckles, for creating high hopes and then dashing them. This is by and large an unemotional, brisk and summarised account of those in power in the country, their problems and compromises, and of the people tagged to these compromises.
The book begins by studying how the country’s early experiments with democracy up to Ayub Khan’s martial law in 1958 had a lasting impact. “Pakistan’s political inheritances, together with the emergence of the Kashmir issue, had undermined its democratic development,” Talbot writes. “The outcome was a state in which democratic consolidation was sacrificed on the altar of national security and in which centralisation prevailed over the pluralist vision contained in the 1940 Lahore Resolution.”
Talbot, as many others have done, describes the emergence of the formulae that were to be used to justify major events in Pakistan, not the least damaging of which were the military rules. The misuse of power by politicians in Talbot’s analysis is at best seen to complement the army-civilian bureaucracy’s readiness to demoinse and trash political forces — an analysis which is consistent with observations about later coups as well.
“In many respects,” he writes, “[bureaucrat] Ghulam Muhammad’s October 1954 dismissal of the Constituent Assembly was a major turning point in Pakistan’s post-independent development.” A bad precedent was set when the act was later provided legal cover by Chief Justice Muhammad Munir. With other events, such as the creation of One Unit, following soon afterwards, democracy was reduced to a façade, which Ayub Khan then removed without too great a risk of protest.
Ayub’s rule was “marked by a decade of high rates of growth, but [also] growing inequality. National integration was consequently more imperiled at the close of his regime than at its outset. Moreover, the corruption and political chaos, which he had pledged to end in 1958, remained undiminished.” Indeed, in Talbot’s words: “The army’s expansion into many areas of Pakistan’s public life brought corruption in its wake.”
The field marshall encouraged proxies in Pakistan’s conflict with India and while he appeared on occasions to be encouraging secular tendencies, striving to open the door to ijtihad, he ultimately fell back on support from religious elements. But by comparison, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s was a much more spectacular capitulation against the orthodoxy.
From Talbot’s account as from the observations of a host of others, the non-fulfillment of Bhutto’s promise was an extremely tragic moment in the country’s history — almost a betrayal. Not too long into his rule, the PPP’s founder was strengthening the same forces whose weakening as political agents had enabled him to act as the carrier of popular aspirations. The traditional families regained control, the Islamists were appeased, political dissent was crushed with a heavy hand and the army shown the route to return to old authority via the military action in Balochistan. When General Ziaul Haq overthrew Bhutto in 1977, he used the ground Bhutto had conceded to the Islamists in building his constituency. The subsequent rulers, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari all tried to shrug off the past, before succumbing to the fundamentalists at crucial junctures. The even-handed approach to all kinds of rulers is in sync with the general current mood of the people of Pakistan who seem to have grown tired of the glorious tales of politicians resolutely facing military interventions.
The promise to understand Pakistan’s history on Pakistan’s terms raised expectations that Professor Talbot would, at some point in the narrative, discuss the public sentiment that fed into decisions by rulers at given moments. But those details are not included in the story, perhaps for reasons of brevity. Yet, overall, the popular aspirations for progress are reflected in the book.
Talbot, by virtue of his extensive work on South Asia, and particularly on Pakistan, reads the trend here quite accurately and analyses it accordingly. The argument, that Pakistanis have the potential to behave differently in future, was necessary in order to come up with a positive outlook for this country. This should help hopeful Pakistani readers strike a chord with this book.
It is a huge relief to be in the company of an author who is critical but who doesn’t write us off as a failed people. Talbot’s faith in the people of Pakistan is intact and he shows us how things can improve by taking up a few basic right steps, down to the point of properly lining canals to save water. This is reflective of just how deep the problem at hand is. It is also evidence of the writer’s commitment to look hard for answers to today’s Pakistan.
Pakistan: A New History could get you in and through various moods. Shorn of the usual, supposedly witty anecdotes to entice and sustain, it saves time and space by coming directly to the point. But if this is a much-needed break from the added dramatic effects all books these days seem to contain, the story itself is sad enough to make a reader gasp for fresh air every few pages. Talbot tries to sum up a complex situation that has expanded with time, made up of a vortex of fresh starts and authoritarian replays, defying attempts at simplification and resolution.