Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Routledge, London and New York 2023
ISBN: 9781032458953

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” These words of wisdom from former US Poet Laureate and 1987 Nobel Laureate for Literature Joseph Brodksy, also paraphrased in the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, may apply in spades to Pervez Hoodbhoy’s latest book on the changing idea of Pakistan.

This valuable discourse on the emergence of Pakistan, its current travails and likely future may well become one of the more unread books in Pakistan for some time to come, especially among those who have pretensions of being the so-called intelligentsia. Pakistan sadly thus remains a crime scene for the literary world.

Hoodbhoy has written a penetrating and well-researched volume on the birth of the idea of Pakistan and its shape-shifting over time at the hands of different social and political leaders, and in different regional and global circumstances. His most valuable contribution lies in showing the mirror to Pakistani society that often drowns itself in self-pity and victimhood and chooses wishful thinking and hope, instead of well-wrought and grounded policy prescriptions, to cope with the vicissitudes of economics and politics.

He brings to this task a physicist’s training and the eloquence of a well-read man. His unvarnished commentary, especially on revered national heroes and historical figures, whose knowledge and skills he respects but whom he puts under his critical microscope nevertheless, will provoke outrage and anger from the non-readers of his book.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s recent book on the birth of the idea of Pakistan and its shape-shifting over time, is a clinical academic dissection of history and society and deserves serious reading and debate

I hope I am horribly wrong in this assessment. This book deserves serious reading and debate in civil and military society, so that Pakistan is better prepared to face the existential challenges of our times.

Hoodbhoy clinically dissects the Two-Nation Theory that has been taken as the gospel upon which the idea of Pakistan was founded and nurtured. He presents detailed arguments and sources for his position while leaning toward the view that, at different times, Muslim leaders in British India chose to ignore historical realities of the area that became British India to create, purposefully, a separateness between them and the Hindu majority of the region.

At the same time, he shows how there was no single or dominant Hindu entity that claimed to be the precursor of modern India. Politicians, including rural religious and agricultural elites, manipulated tensions between Hindus and Muslims to garner advantages for themselves.

In doing so, they sowed the seeds of national conflict that threaten global peace today, as nuclear-armed India and Pakistan face off with enough destructive power to wipe each other off the face of the Earth and leave the northern hemisphere under nuclear winter for up to six months.

He also examines the current rise of Hindutva that, among other things, attempts to show that the Aryans were natives of the Subcontinent. Hindu supremacy would find it hard to depend on an imported race and ideology. For both Hindus and Muslims, Hoodbhoy is critical of the use of mythology rather than historical evidence to support the idea of a single Hindu nation in South Asia before the Muslim invasions.

He presents genetic evidence of the arrival of Sanskrit-speaking Aryans some 4,000 years ago. Sanskrit was spoken in what is now Syria. Thus, for him, India is a tapestry of many patterns and colours.

The book creates a solid foundation by examining the historical origins of the region that Pakistan inhabits today, making the point that religion was not used as a political glue or basis of governance and that even Muslim leaders brought in Hindu and Sikh partners to help rule the disparate land that was South Asia.

But, surprisingly, he makes a sweeping statement that Muslim conquerors forcibly converted locals to Islam, without examining the role of spiritual leaders in that process. In his view, the British colonials were most often the ones that used the religious divides to weaken the local populace and allow them to rule a vast empire with relatively few troops from their own homeland.

He then focuses attention on three “towering individuals”, who laid the foundations of what later emerged as the state of Pakistan: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He examines their roles as modernisers, representatives of Islam, and how they saw the future of India’s Muslims in a region with three competing groups: Muslims, Hindus, and the British.

He does not mention the first Aligarh generation (see David Llelyveld’s work on this topic) that established educational freedom by allowing full chairs for Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu and Hebrew! But he often brings to the fore the contradictions in their personal lives and positions, especially on issues relating to the role of women and communalism. And he points out Iqbal’s disdain for Western democracy as soulless, opting for theocracy as his ideal. But Jinnah moved the needle toward a non-theocratic but an Islamic state, giving rise to an unending debate in modern Pakistan.

Hoodbhoy quotes the historian K.K. Aziz, stating that “on the record of their writings and speeches, Jinnah comes out to be far more liberal and secular than Gandhi.” Surprisingly, some of these heroes who are often seen as liberal icons tended toward the reactionary end of the spectrum. Hoodbhoy will be pilloried for not hiding those aspects of their lives, especially when he presents the darker side of Iqbal regarding women. Iqbal kept his wives in purdah.

His placing of the process of Partition under a microscope also yields contradictions in the manner in which the periphery was brought into the federation of Pakistan, giving truth to Jinnah’s fears about a “truncated and moth-eaten” country. Many of those tensions and conflicts remain extant today and bedevil governance by men and women who have neither the intellectual heft or selflessness of Jinnah.

The ill health and early departure from the scene of Jinnah exposes his lack of succession planning and emergence of the political turncoats, especially from the Punjab, who once opposed Pakistan and then owned it as a better bet for retaining their elite privileges. Elite privilege and capture remains the putative religion of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan even today.

Hoodbhoy’s book examines a number of key questions, for example: Was Partition worth the bloodshed? But he raises a strange question without providing any immediate sourcing for an allegation: “A striking example of zero-sum gaming is that of pre-Partition hostage bargaining — one that Jinnah endorsed [when and where is unclear] — where the deal was that if you kill so many Muslims on the Indian side (where they were in the minority), we will allow so many Hindus and Sikhs to be killed on the Pakistan side.”

He also wonders what is the ideology of Pakistan today, raising the danger of challenging the popular views of whatever form of government is ruling the country at any particular time. Paradoxically, the military that played almost no role in the political birth of Pakistan, nor fought a revolutionary war for independence the way, say, the Algerians did, is now the guardian of Pakistan’s external and ideological frontiers as it defines them. This is mainly because the weak-kneed political class has ceded the ground to them.

Why has Pakistan failed to become a truly Islamic state? Why has it become a praetorian state? How do Pakistanis identify themselves? By religion, tribe, sect or class? Confusion reigns on these and other pertinent issues that Hoodbhoy takes on in a series of dense essays that will only grip the most intelligent and interested reader.

He does point out that Islamic history is not taught at the school level in Pakistan — probably because it would be a fraught exercise to agree on what to teach and whom to include or exclude! He also does not discuss the number of abortive Islamist coup attempts from within the Pakistan Army that has increasingly become captured by its obeisance to Islamic rituals and slogans.

I wish he had adopted a lesser academic style in some of these chapters, in order to draw in more general readers; one more along the lines of his television debates, where he argues skillfully and presents evidence to knock pompous opponents off their high perches with his eloquence, erudition, and evidence.

If you have the time and the inclination to read it through and thoroughly, this book will help you find your own answers, even if you don’t agree with the solutions that the author presents. I hazard to guess that the Hoodbhoy I have come to know will be pleased with that result.

The reviewer is the founding director and Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Centre of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the author of The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood and Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within. He can be reached through his website:

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 4th, 2024



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