DR Ayesha Jalal is widely recognised, both nationally and internationally, as a pre-eminent historian for South Asia in general, and Pakistan in particular. In a brief, but helpful, preface to this book she mentions her previous work on Jinnah, the creation of Pakistan, martial law, and her personal scholarly perspective on the role Islam has played in shaping the nation.
Currently the holder of an endowed chair at Tufts University, given her status and background Jalal was the natural, if not the best, choice to take on the task of providing readers internationally with an overview of the political challenges faced by the nation from its creation to the present-day in her latest book, The Struggle for Pakistan.
As an overview the book cannot really be faulted. Overviews are by their very nature structured to provide cohesive narratives, not deep intricacies or narrow intrinsic debates. In a surprisingly impassioned prologue for a scholar whom one would expect to be bound by the strictures of academic convention, Jalal underscores the need to alternatively examine the restrictions and opportunities that, for better or for worse, affected the dynamic process of Pakistan’s development over the course of the past six decades. She then proceeds to outline the blood-soaked birth of the country, the tragic (but inevitable) tensions between the eastern and western wings, the secession of Bangladesh shepherded by Mujib ‘Bangabandhu’ Rehman, Generals Ayub and Yahya Khan’s military strangleholds over their respective governments, Zulfiqar Bhutto’s canny political machinations, General Ziaul Haq’s capitalisation on global issues, and his Islamisation of the country. Also dwelt on at considerable length are Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto’s internecine political-party power struggles, General Musharraf’s ambiguous negotiations between the military and Islamic powers dominating the country, and Asif Zardari’s unlikely, but undeniable, rise to influence.
When it comes to delineating the workings of coalition governments or various parties whether it be the historically older Awami League, or the PPP, the PML-N, and the PTI (to name just some modern ones) Jalal’s skill is unparalleled. She deftly observes the interactions between several of them, as well as independent challenges faced by them. She equally adeptly covers all salient features of Pakistan’s see-sawing governments, and devotes as much time to exploring the growing dissatisfaction and increasing influence of the judiciary, as she does to the country being embroiled in Kashmir, in the ‘war on terror’, and amidst global strife such as the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Naturally, being a responsible writer, she cannot neglect the alarm with which the United States has regarded, and continues to regard, the strife along Pakistan’s northern borders, hence she adequately, if not comprehensively, deals with the post 9/11 chessboard manoeuvres between the governments of the US and Pakistan, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Any historian has the right to choose what to prioritise in a text, and what to sacrifice in the interests of space and publication constraints. For instance, in chapter three (‘A Sprawling Military Barrack’) Jalal does an admirable job of detailing the linguistic tensions that arose between Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis and those West Pakistanis who believed in furthering the dominance of Urdu as the country’s national language. Although Mujib’s extensive tensions with Bhutto prior to what Jalal terms “the watershed of 1971” (part of the title of her fifth chapter) are not underscored in detail, she shrewdly explores the “crux of the 1971 crisis. Who was liable to secede from whom, the majority in the eastern wing, or sections of the minority in the west?”
Hence, the eastern wing’s dissatisfaction with the policies of the federal centre is well-documented towards the tail end of chapter five, though it would have helped if Jalal had devoted a section to examining the release of prisoners of war post-1971, for which Bhutto deserves special commendation. While Jalal certainly mentions overarching features of Zulfiqar Bhutto’s foreign policy (especially with respect to China), she diverts more attention towards his overwhelming emphasis on populism. Indeed, this makes perfect sense, since no historian structuring an overview of the country’s political development can afford to neglect the ostensibly natural (but carefully cultivated) sway over the common people that Bhutto (and later, to a lesser extent, his daughter Benazir) exercised.
It would have been desirable, as the book progressed, for Jalal to have incorporated more information on the manner in which major global powers other than the United States came to regard Pakistan — she is surprisingly silent on both the Soviet and United Kingdom’s respective stances on issues such as the rise of Islamic militants, and their apprehension about foreign trade being severely compromised post-9/11. But then, perhaps this type of uneven stance can be somewhat justified by the undeniable point that Pakistan eventually became the third highest recipient of US economic aid, after Israel and Egypt. Indeed insofar as Egypt is concerned, although Jalal faithfully mentions the Arab Spring several times in her epilogue, very little attention is paid to analysing whether that type of revolution can feasibly and plausibly take place in a country such as Pakistan.
The book deserves to be translated into many languages — it is informative and detailed but does not make for unpalatable reading. The occasional error can be excused — Calcutta obviously did not experience violence related to direct action on August 16, 1947, as Jalal notes; the strife took place a year earlier. But Belknap Press and Jalal’s peer-reviewers are far more to be blamed for not catching and eliminating these hiccups than the author herself, especially since Belknap is a Harvard University-based publishing concern.
Additionally, the absence of a bibliography can be related to irresponsible editorship, especially since Jalal’s academic knowledge stems from many years of extensive reading and engagement with relevant primary and secondary sources. Jalal does indeed provide citations and endnotes, as well as a selected index, and while these are not particularly dense, one should keep in mind that she appears to be writing for a far broader audience than an academic one.
One may certainly argue that there are several overviews available on Pakistani history and hence may question the need to prioritise reading Jalal’s book over and above the others. One can address this query from many angles, noting that Jalal’s reputation, her unique position as a female historian, her genuine concern for the country’s well-being, all contribute towards making this a heartfelt account, as well as an erudite one. Often one does get the sense that the text positions itself with respect to a specifically Western, economically developed audience but that should come as no surprise.
Jalal is not so much an apologist for Pakistan, as a woman who consistently hopes that the country will learn from its past mistakes, especially since its nuclear programme and geostrategic position continue to make it a key player in international politics, regardless of whether it cares to be entangled in the plethora of dilemmas that result from this. Her sorrow at the nation’s myriad sociological problems such as the oppression of women, its treatment of minorities, and its inherent corruption at the hands of self-serving parties is perfectly genuine — indeed at times she comes across as being as visionary and prophetic as Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose literature inspired her and to whom she alludes repeatedly.
Repeatedly. “That very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self,” as John Keats noted. Although her writing is well-paced and stylistically engaging, Jalal succumbs to the heady effects of her own emphatic rhetoric on more than one occasion. Jinnah’s apprehension at losing parts of Punjab and Bengal prior to Partition, and thereby receiving a “moth-eaten” state from Congress and the British is alluded to three times. Her insistence that the nepotistic Nawaz Sharif styled himself as a Mughal ruler also crops up thrice, although whether he is more like the secular-minded Akbar or the romantic Shah Jahan is not clarified. In Sharif’s defence, from a global perspective he would hardly be the first leader to have looked out for the interests of his family — both Napoleon and John F. Kennedy blatantly pulled their siblings into the political limelight at the earliest opportunity.
It is the interdisciplinary veneer that Jalal gives her work — citing Faiz and Manto, among others — that exposes her agenda: she regards herself as an agent of social change, not primarily as a disinterested, academic historian. At times her rhetoric causes her to swing between the naïve and the disingenuous. With apparent sincerity Jalal notes: “If [Governor Salmaan Taseer’s] own security guard could riddle the governor of the most powerful province of the country with twenty-six bullets, no one was safe in Pakistan” (emphasis mine) conveniently ignoring that this was precisely the unfortunate fate of Indira Gandhi, fatally wounded by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Incidentally, in spite of Jalal’s overarching championship of women’s issues, both Fatima Jinnah and Indira Gandhi are paid short shrift in her work — the former receives a short paragraph of consideration concerning her defeat at the hands of Ayub, the latter little more than a reproduction of an elegant photograph of her and Zulfiqar Bhutto.
One must read between the lines of Jalal’s writing to even begin to understand Pakistan. Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan created and maintained the nation against overwhelming odds. Jalal refers to Zulfiqar Bhutto as a genius only once, although that particular fact would have merited being repeated three times, and Bhutto would have been proud of that type of eulogistic rhetoric himself!
Some hard-headed military historians would argue that the credit of moving Pakistan towards the power and security that, coldly and objectively speaking, a nuclear arsenal bestows on any country can be given to every significant general who governed it, ranging from Ayub and Yahya Khan to Musharraf and the economically shrewd Ziaul Haq. That Nawaz Sharif is a survivor (a point evinced by Jalal’s underscoring Saudi Arabia and Prince Bandar’s stepping in to provide shelter for him in exile) is as set in stone as the fact that Asif Zardari can always be proud of being self-made and politically street-smart in a way that other rulers of Pakistan cannot (Jalal herself acknowledges the latter of those two Zardari traits on more than one occasion).
That Jalal is a thought-provoking and engaging writer is undeniable, that she is a painstaking historian and sincere interdisciplinarian is not in question, but whether, after publishing this book, she remains a hard-core academic is doubtful to say the least.
The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration.
The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics
By Ayesha Jalal
Belknap Press, Harvard University, US