“The People of Pakistan Are in No Mood for Authoritarian Rule”

A historian reflects on Pakistan’s evolution over the last seven decades.

A man holds an anti-Taliban sign along with others during a peace rally in Lahore on January 5, 2015.
A man holds an anti-Taliban sign along with others during a 2015 peace rally in Lahore.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

This week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the hinge moments in modern history: when the British government simultaneously “granted” independence to India, and partitioned it in two, birthing the state of Pakistan. Pakistan celebrates its birthday on Aug. 14, and India on Aug. 15; it thus feels like a good moment to take the temperature of both countries, and to do so while also looking back over their past seven decades. (Pakistan itself lost its eastern wing, which became Bangladesh, in 1971.)

Thanks in part to the machinations of its de facto military rulers, Pakistan’s prime minister until several weeks ago, Nawaz Sharif, was disqualified from holding office; the country remains menaced by religious fanaticism and instability. India, ostensibly the brighter success story, not only elected Narendra Modi, a rightwing Hindu demagogue, in 2014, but is racked by civil unrest in a number of its 29 states. (Muslim-majority Kashmir, most of which belongs to India, remains a disputed territory, and the area under Indian control is governed with a strong and brutal military presence.)

Sharif has recently been holding marches and calling his ouster undemocratic. The opposition politician Imran Khan, meanwhile, although facing a scandal involving alleged text-message sexual harassment, is going to contest the next election via a kind of demagogic populism that some see as similar to the populism that has arisen in India and elsewhere.

I spoke by phone recently with Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani professor of history at Tufts who wrote a definitive biography of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and, more recently, The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. (My conversation with the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, about the current state of India, will be published Tuesday.) During the course of my chat with Jalal, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Khan’s similarities to Donald Trump, how partition abetted military rule, and the challenge of entrenching democracy in a deeply misogynistic society.

Isaac Chotiner: I was speaking to an Indian historian recently who said that he thought people have a disproportionate obsession with analyzing India through the lens of partition, in part, because so much of India was in some ways unaffected by partition. Do you think the same is true of Pakistan?

Ayesha Jalal: Absolutely not because partition is not just a question of what areas are affected but the construction of an entirely new entity called Pakistan. Instead of one state, you ended up with two, and then subsequently with three after 1971. There’s nothing more important in recent history here than the partition of India. For the first time, the subcontinent was divided along religious lines, and the implications of that are massive. It’s not just about the actual impact of the event in terms of how people suffered, but the overall impact in terms of the conflict between these two states.

How much do you trace specifically the dominant role of the military in Pakistan to partition?

If you want to understand military dominance in Pakistan, it would be inconceivable to try and understand it without pointing to the hostile relationship that has existed between Pakistan and India. That has given the military a great deal of justification for its position of dominance in Pakistan. To say that it is simply something that’s peculiar to this part of the world, or because Muslims are weird, that’s all nonsense. There are people who believe that. I don’t subscribe to that kind of interpretation of history. It’s rooted in partition, the way India was divided.

How much of the religious orientation of the state do you trace back to 1947?

There is a disagreement about whether it was meant to be a religious state or a homeland for India’s Muslims, and the majority of the people who happened to be in a position of dominance in the early decades subscribed to the latter, i.e. that this was a homeland for India’s Muslims and not a religious state in which the guardians of religion would call the shots.

The religious orientation of the state is not something that happened automatically. Those who opposed the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan and tried to put forward a religious agenda were those in fact most opposed to partition. After opposing Pakistan, when Pakistan was on the map, they started pushing forward the idea of an Islamic state. You have to erase the early decades of Pakistan to assume [that] the moment Pakistan was created, its future was going to be this religious darkness into which it fell in the ’80s and since the ’80s.

I think that there is a tendency to take the present and read it back in to the history, but if you look at [Pakistan] from 1947 to the mid-1970s, you find a very different dynamic in which the dominance of the religious angle was not there. Pakistan ended up with the religious ideology, really, post-1971 after Bangladesh, and also responding to the global assertion of Islam following the Arab–Israeli War and the Saudis telling the world how to be Muslim. It’s that ideology, along with Saudi’s petrodollars because Pakistan needed the money to finish its [nuclear] bomb, and that’s exactly what happened.

So, it seems to me, if I’m hearing you correctly, that you’re drawing a distinction between military control and religious orientation, and that you’re tracing the military control back more directly to partition.

All I’m saying is that even the military, if you go back to the initial years of Pakistan, there was nothing preordained about military dominance. Pakistan got military rule as a direct result of its differences with India, the Kashmir conflict, and not least, the environment of the cold war international global order. It wasn’t just the fact that the Muslims wanted a Pakistan. These happened as a result of human choices.

It’s hard to know what the right phrase is to describe Pakistan. Is it a partial democracy? How do you conceive of it today?

I don’t see democracy and authoritarianism as stark opposites. They’re a part of the same spectrum and it’s a question of dominance and resistance. I see the situation in Pakistan as an ongoing battle between the civilians and the military for supremacy. What is different of course now is that a good portion of civilians in the political leadership feel that they can use the fixtures of the military to get themselves in a position of permanence, so, that’s been happening for a while as well.

In that sense, I don’t see what has happened today in Pakistan since the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as dramatically new. It has happened before. I can cite several such instances in Pakistan’s earlier history when this happened. But there is a difference in the sense that the military has chosen not to come in, [when] it would have in the eighties or even in the nineties. It has chosen to stay on the margins and continue to have its say, but it hasn’t taken over state power directly. They’ve finally learned that even military rulers need legitimacy to survive, which doesn’t mean there’s no military establishment [that] doesn’t want politicians to be divided and at each other’s throats so that they have the dominant say.

We have seen a rise in America and India and elsewhere of an authoritarian populism. How much do you see Imran Khan as this type of figure?

On what basis are we judging? Are we judging him on the basis of the way he runs his party? Mr. Imran Khan has not occupied a single day in office, so, I can’t tell what his tendencies are, but, by all appearances, he likes the populist protests. He hasn’t really settled down to do anything. I would say that yes, Imran Khan the populist and future statesman in the making might well display more of an authoritarian streak given the process by which he comes to assert himself in the political process.

You’re obviously correct about him and his lack of achievements and it’s unclear exactly what he stands for, but, you know, the same was true with Trump. Obviously less with Modi, it was pretty clear what he stood for, but there were aspects of Trump’s personality while campaigning that made it seem like he had authoritarian tendencies. Certainly one gets the same sense with Imran.

I would agree there, Isaac, I would agree there. I will concede that the populist mode does put emphasis on the cult of personality rather than ideology. But I can’t really say what Imran will be like because he’s just not seen in an office, we haven’t even seen him in parliament. You know, he didn’t even show up to vote for his own candidate for president.

He prefers to show up unsolicited on women’s phones.

[Laughs.] I think not to go to parliament is very indicative of what we might see in the future, that he will bypass parliament if he gets into power. That’s not, in my view, a very good sign of democratic leadership.

Are there trends in Pakistan that you think are under-covered in the West or underappreciated?

I think one of the most important things that has been missed is, unlike the earlier standoff between an authoritarian state apparatus and a populist movement or democratic movements for democracy, the utilization of social media to much more effectively circumvent the authoritarian structures of the state. I think there’s a tendency to miss out on that. This is not a society that is going to take things lying down, they will not. The military can do what it likes, but the people have their own view.

I think that you should just [turn on] your television and see what’s going on with Nawaz Sharif inching his way from Rawalpindi to Lahore. I mean, that is the kind of stuff that is of significance. The people do have a mind of their own … and unlike in earlier times, I think Pakistani democracy is much more vibrant. Like all democracies, it has greater conflict as well because democracy in my view is conflict. Successful democracies are those that establish institutions that can mediate that conflict. In Pakistan, the democratic institutions that are needed have not been created, have not been allowed to be created by those who have, very early on, acquired power in this country.

I think that is what is most misunderstood. The people are as desirous of democracy as anywhere else in the world. That is something that is missed out on, because Pakistan’s fate has been seen as tied up with the military forever. Another politician falls, and in the west this country is seen to remain in a standstill in authoritarian mode. Well, I can tell you, the people of Pakistan are in no mood to have authoritarian rule imposed upon them again.

Are there any trends in the area of women’s rights that you find interesting?

At the subcontinental level, the state of women’s rights is dismal. I think Bangladesh, on social indicators, does better than India as well as Pakistan. In Pakistan, if you are talking about societal attitudes, they are dismal. It’s a misogynist society to the core; I don’t know whether Pakistan is the most misogynist, but it certainly vies to be one [of the most], and Pakistan has more of a structural basis for that misogyny to be constantly churned out and fed to the people.

So, there is this misogynist air, in which you are seeing the way people are responding to charges of harassment by a woman today. All states in this subcontinent are misogynist but Pakistan has excelled in that.

Is there any contradiction, though, between what you said there about the level of misogyny and the desire for democracy if we agree that in 2017, to have a vibrant democracy, you need—

I don’t think there’s any, I mean, just as there’s no contradiction between Donald Trump in America and the desire for democracy. Donald Trump is a man who comes off as misogynist on women’s rights. So, I don’t think there is any contradiction between a misogynist attitude and a desire for democratic rights.

I guess I think long-term that Donald Trump’s rise and his correlated misogyny does make me worried about democracy in America. Not that women are going to have the vote taken from them or something, but in terms of our larger commitment to democracy.

Democracy is a process, and there will be setbacks and advances. I’m not denying that there is deep-seated misogyny, and the democratic process is hugely flawed, but all I am saying is that however flawed the Democratic process in Pakistan is today, the overwhelming desire on the part of the people is for it to continue, i.e. that the next stage should be a general election. Nobody wants an extraconstitutional intervention, even though the [Sharif] disqualification has raised a lot of concerns in the way it was done. This is all being debated in Pakistan very vigorously.