Into the future via the past

Updated 14 Aug 2020

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The Queen of England and Ayub Khan are driven through Karachi’s Saddar area during the Queen’s first visit to Pakistan in 1961. — Dawn archives
The Queen of England and Ayub Khan are driven through Karachi’s Saddar area during the Queen’s first visit to Pakistan in 1961. — Dawn archives

PERHAPS the ideal way to go forward is to turn around and go back. Not as a retreat, but as a rediscovery in order to re-energise and to create a better tomorrow. The prevalence of the pandemic today should neither befog our vision for the future nor our remembrance of the past. There is a need to step away from the present — which is too much with us.

The 24-hour news cycle of electronic media and the anarchy of social media justify a brief drone-borne-like overview of certain yesterdays. Generations born in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s who lived through those days are receding. Successive generations of Pakistanis, especially the young, deserve to be informed about the times when Pakistan was also truly young.

See: Pakistan — a history through posters, papers and assorted paraphernalia

The tragic disintegration of the original Pakistan in 1971 has obscured our recall of the first 24 years of the country’s life. That phase is generally seen as though the newborn state was simply tip-toeing toward a disaster foretold at its birth by ill-wishers in India, such as Sardar Patel who had given only about six months for our survival.

The political instability reflected in seven prime ministerial changes in 11 years from 1947 to 1958, while India continued with the single same person as PM, the brewing tensions in East Pakistan due to West Pakistan’s insensitive disregard for the majority, the imposition of One Unit, and the shift from civil democracy to military dictatorship in 1958 have diverted attention from a virtual miracle — the early years of Pakistan.

A virtual miracle

Of about that initial quarter-century, the 18 years between 1947 and 1965, in particular, deserve reexamination. Though the September 1965 war with India was fought only on the West Pakistan front, that conflict deepened the inter-wing distrust, accelerated the pace toward the break-up and, in the context of this brief essay, distorted the human-made miracle born on August 14, 1947. For in those years, there were two parallel tracks travelled by the Pakistani train of time.

Also read: A look at some of the historic moments that have shaped Pakistan

The visible, far more remembered track featured the tumult and turbulence cited above. Though occasionally referred to, the other track has tended to fade from vivid public memory. On this track, often quietly, sometimes audibly there were those elements which fuelled the engine of Pakistani resilience. This quality, despite being sledge-hammered in 1971, enabled the residual part of the original state to rapidly revive the momentum set in the early phase. Almost half-a-century later, Pakistan is acknowledged as a country of regional and global geopolitical significance; notwithstanding our several flaws and failures that receive incessant, if not excessive, attention every day and night.

Let us always remember the conditions of our commencement. Incomparable disadvantages in physical infrastructure and resources because the areas that were rightly — but in other areas, also unjustly, arbitrarily — allotted to India possessed most of the well-developed infrastructure from pre-1947 years. Only 10 weeks’ advance notice was given for the establishment of a whole new State in which about 70 million people would be citizens.

The Plan was announced on June 3, 1947. Independence came August 14, 1947. Two wings with approximately equal populations were separated by 1,000 miles of hostile territory. Over-flights to connect the two wings by the shortest route were subject to approval by the hostile neighbour. As a perverse bonus, there was a second hostile neighbour in Afghanistan which became the sole UN member to briefly oppose our application for membership. The new state was swamped by about 8-10 million refugees within the first 12 months. This shift represented the largest-ever migration in contemporary eras in so short a period.

While the original residents of Punjab and Sindh in particular opened their lands, hearts and homes to accommodate the bulk of refugees until new housing became available, in East Pakistan too, thousands of refugees from Assam, West Bengal and Bihar were welcomed and settled. Within 10 weeks, we were obliged to protect Kashmir from being completely and illegally usurped by India. Direly needed equipment and funds from a pre-agreed share were deliberately withheld by India which also, temporarily but menacingly, stopped water flows into Punjab. Those are some reasons why Pakistan is the single most uniquely-created nation-state in world history. And why it was compelled to become a security-oriented state from the outset.

A new chemistry

On the parallel track, more than one engine powered the infant state onward. Those engines were the qualities of tenacity, ingenuity, the will to work, generous compassion, and blind faith in the capacity to survive against all odds. Overnight, millions of strangers became neighbours and friends. Overcoming all the problems, a new chemistry of co-existence fizzed and bubbled. A new sociology fused ancient soil with new souls. A functioning structure for an awkwardly-placed state was swiftly assembled like a Meccano set. The system began to work quickly and well.

The forefathers of a now much-maligned bureaucracy worked with frugal means, but with fevered determination. Many without desks, chairs, papers and cars nevertheless ensured efficient administration and competent management. Policy-makers defied British and Indian pressure to devalue the rupee in 1949 following devaluations by those countries. India retaliated by suspending trade. But soon, the Korean war, which began in 1950, opened new opportunities for the export of commodities.

In 1952-53, our GDP growth achieved the brief, yet spectacular rate of 10.22pc while the average rate up to 1958 was 3-4pc, a very steady, healthy rate in those conditions. Between 1958 and 1965, GDP growth moved up to 5pc and even 9.3pc per annum. So impressive was Pakistan’s economic performance that India’s comparatively sluggish pace was labelled “the Hindu rate of growth” by some of India’s own analysts envious of the Muslim neighbour’s progress.

On a visit by this writer to South Korea a few years ago, one’s pride was renewed when an eminent social scientist recalled how Pakistan’s first two Five-Year Plans between 1955 and 1965 became model concepts for their own country’s subsequent rapid progress. He confided that his family, like most others in those times, could barely manage one full meal a day.

In both wings, simultaneous expansion of physical and service infrastructure took place through roads, bridges, electrification, opening of bank branches, augmentation of Karachi and Chittagong ports, initiation of an entirely new port at Monga in East Pakistan, telephone lines, educational institutions, airports, housing construction, spread of cultivated areas, establishment of factories.

Though 80pc of the world’s jute was grown in the erstwhile East Pakistan, all the jute factories were located in Indian West Bengal. Post-1947, business families, such as the Adamjees and the Ispahanis, set up the first-ever manufacturing plants in East Pakistan, for jute, paper and other products. They created thousands of jobs for local residents and imparted technical skills. Professional training proceeded quickly in civil and military spheres in both wings. In the military, starting with the Faujdarhat Cadet College in Chittagong in 1958, followed soon by similar cadet colleges in Jhenaidah, Rajshahi and Tangail, by 1971 there were four such colleges in the eastern wing with only one, at Hassan Abdal, in the western wing.

Deft diplomacy

Pakistan made an immediate impact at the international level by deploying diplomats of exceptional ability. Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, the first foreign minister, was an accomplished exponent of the Quaid-i-Azam’s visionary principles for relations with other nations. Ahmed Shah Bokhari made waves at the UN as its premier under secretary-general. Several ambassadors persuasively articulated the new state’s foreign policy in major capitals — while the Foreign Office still operated in austere working conditions at Mohatta Palace in Karachi.

We showed a rare ability to walk a thin tightrope. Crafting a close relationship with a Communist China demonised by the West, we also joined two US-led anti-Communist alliances such as CENTO and SEATO. Showing deftness in multilateral as well as bilateral negotiations, the country’s technocrats worked purposefully with the World Bank and India to conclude the Indus Waters’ Treaty in 1960 which has survived wars, border conflicts and prolonged crises.

In other spheres, a Pakistani who received his early education in a village school proved that he could set new standards in global scientific and intellectual excellence. Dr Abdus Salam won several top medals in physics at Cambridge University in the 1950s, two decades before entering his country’s name for the first time in the Nobel pantheon in 1979. He also helped co-found the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), while principal institutions to stimulate multi-sectoral development were established.

Laurels in sports and arts

Creating their own distinctive place in toughly competitive international sports, our cricketers achieved several landmarks, starting in 1954. Led by A.H. Kardar, Pakistan became the first team to win a Test match against England on a first tour of cricket’s cradle country. Neither Australia, nor New Zealand, nor South Africa, nor the West Indies, nor India had managed this feat. Four years later, the diminutive Hanif Mohammad grew ten feet tall and even taller. He faced the ferocious speed of West Indian fast bowlers and the scorching heat of the Caribbean sun to play the longest-ever innings in the history of Test cricket — for more than 16 hours spread over three days for the then-highest score of 337 runs.

Read: The exciting truth-tellers of sport

Also in 1958, Brojan Das of East Pakistan beat competitors from 23 other countries to swim across the Channel from France to England and win the international championship. He repeated the feat another seven times. Two years later, Naseer Bunda and our hockey team won the Gold Medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Earlier, at the 1954 Asian Games, Abdul Khaliq’s record-breaking speed in the 100-metre race made Pakistan the home of the continent’s fastest runner.

Squash players, like Roshan Khan and Hashim Khan, reigned over the world’s squash courts, as harbingers of the super-world champion Jahangir Khan who emerged 20 years later.

Spanning a wide spectrum of creative and performing arts, Pakistani talent in classical and contemporary music, in dance, in folk arts, in painting, in the multiple dimensions of cinema, in Urdu, in Bangla, in regional languages witnessed a robust flowering of colour and form that sought to express a new, evolving identity. The excellence of our early cinema became evident when the 1952 film Dopatta became a box office hit in India. One notable indicator of the cross-cultural, inter-wing communication within the country in that period was the production of dozens of Urdu films in Dacca. Some of the most gifted and popular celluloid stars in West Pakistan emerged from East Pakistan.

First, through the pioneering role of Radio Pakistan, and then through PTV, numerous voices and faces became part of public memory. Later, PTV serials and plays captivated millions across the border.

Seeding institutions and development

With new seeds and agronomist support, the Green Revolution enhanced productivity while farms and orchards produced an abundance of crops, fruits and vegetables. With Kaptai Dam in the eastern wing, and construction launched for Mangla and Tarbela in the west, projects for major increases in hydro-electric power generation and water for irrigation were initiated.

New organisations were formed in the public sector and in civil society. State entities helped fund the industrial base. Chambers of agriculture, commerce and industry, professional associations, trade and labour unions, students’ unions, women’s federations and associations to campaign for rights and equity — there was sustained citizen activism, even after the imposition of martial law in 1958.

A cosmopolitan milieu

In less than 15 years of independence, the country became a tourist-favourite for hotel occupants and back-packers despite lack of extensive modern tourist infrastructure. Major global airlines viewed Karachi as an important destination. Air France, KLM, British Airways built their own hotels and structures for transit passengers and crew. Western women went shopping into Bori Bazaar clad in shorts and gear that drew only the rare, odd stare. Night clubs of differing standards featured dancers, even strippers, musicians and artists from Lebanon, Europe, Australia, USA, and the local talent was also visible. Bars served liquor without any sign of drunkenness on the streets. Race courses drew crowds as jockeys urged steeds to speed. Trams ran cutely on some Karachi streets on which women and girls could walk long stretches after sunset without a worry for safety. Most people minded their own business.

The new country’s name became part of quirky global fame. On a goodwill mission to Pakistan, US Vice-President Lyndon Johnson stopped to spontaneously meet cheering citizens in Karachi. His warm handshake with a camel cart driver named Bashir led to the latter becoming a quasi-royal guest. He was flown to several cities across America and feted as a celebrity. Pakistan was full of surprises, and, for the most part, pleasant.

We reached for the sky. And flew high. In just a few years, our pilots, air hostesses, crew, unseen engineers and aviation management leaders moulded PIA into “Great people to fly with”. Other countries invited us to help set up their own national airlines — among today’s top global networks.

Not nipped in the bud

In those early years, not all was hunky-dory. As in all other parts of the world where people live, there was also crime and violence, but not rampantly so.

Corruption, misgovernance, periodic shortages, nepotism and extremes also contributed their share. In Lahore, religious bigotry focussed on hating minorities was allowed to spiral disproportionately due to political and administrative mismanagement, requiring use of military force. Contrary to the predominant ethos of respect for diversity practised by most Muslims, bursts of extremism by small numbers of fanatics were unwisely permitted in the decades to come until they ballooned into showy piety, religiosity and violent sectarianism.

The aberrations of those years were partly the fallout from what was happening on the other track — on which individual ambition, lust for power, party divisions, increasing involvement of the military — all were combusting into ultimate implosions, first in 1958 and then, catastrophically in 1971.

Early gold, abiding value

The most interesting facet of the first 18 years was that, with fluent ease, speed and grace, people of enormous diversity who had never before lived together as a single nation-state, interacted emotively and began to share hopes for a common future. This broad, deep sense of fraternity transcended the bitterness and alienation caused in East Pakistan because of the delay in recognising Bengali as a state language and the persistent conviction that the west wing only exploited the east wing. So strong was this affinity that the overwhelming majority of Bengali East Pakistanis wanted to remain citizens of Pakistan, be it a federation or a confederation, right up to March 1, 1971, when the first shock was imparted through the postponement of the National Assembly session set for March 3, 1971.

Also read: The Breakup of Pakistan 1969-1971

And even though the military operation launched on March 25, 1971, repelled many, the scope for reconciliation and a political solution remained viable for several months thereafter. It died only because the Yahya Khan regime and certain political allies refused to turn back from the abyss that led to December 16, 1971.

Future challenges

The years between 1965 and 1971, the traumatic year 1971 itself, have received substantive attention and are beyond this essay’s scope. Study needs to continue because, among other features, history is like an onion that bears endless peeling. However, there have been far fewer investigative works about the social and cultural dimensions of Pakistan in its first two decades. The paucity is particularly notable in educational textbooks and in public discourse.

Without ignoring the other track — the harsh economic, political realities of those years — it is vitally relevant to re-visit the 1947-1965 phase. Not for wistful nostalgia alone. But in order to learn about the extraordinary warmth, verve, sincerity, talents, skills and splendid heights felt and achieved by the people of both East and West Pakistan.

Objective conditions in 2020 are very distinct from conditions over half-a-century ago. While we become fully cognizant of the new exponential speed of change and uncertainty, revival and re-application of the elements which shaped our formative years will surely help address the challenges of the future.


The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister, author of, among other books, ‘What is Pakistaniat?’