Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Saturday, 11 August 2007 00:04 UK

Pakistan's circular history

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News

A marble edifice honours Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah
A marble edifice honours Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah
The story of Pakistan is one of remorseless tug and pull between the civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and the liberal and religious forces on the other.

In the process, the country has failed to become either a democracy, a theocracy or a permanent military dictatorship.

The chief casualties have been the rule of law, the state institutions and the process of national integration, with grave consequences for the civil society.

The "Talebanisation" of the north-western region is one manifestation of the prevalent disorder; an unending separatist campaign by nationalists in the south-western Balochistan province is another.

Meanwhile, sectarian and ethnic tensions have kept the two largest provinces - namely Punjab, which is the bread-basket of the country, and Sindh, which is its trading and industrial mainstay - perennially unstable.

How and why did all this come about?

Hybrid system

The country was born in 1947 with a clean slate and a potential to follow in one of two directions.

It could opt for democracy. It had inherited democratic institutions and experience from the colonial rule, and was itself the creation of a democratic process involving national elections, parliamentary resolutions and a referendum.

Or it could become an Islamic emirate. The Pakistan movement was based on the theory that the Muslims of India were a nation and had a right to separate statehood.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Mr Jinnah made some controversial decisions
They were granted separate electorate by the British rulers, and used Islamic identity as their main election slogan in 1937 and 1946.

But instead of making a clear choice, the early leaders tried to mix the two, and inadvertently sparked a series of political, legal and religious debacles that define today's Pakistan.

In political terms, democracy has been the first casualty of this hybrid system.

Its foundations were shaken by two controversial decisions made by the country's founder and first Governor-General, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

He dismissed the Congress-led government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) by decree, and instead of ordering fresh elections, appointed a Muslim League leader as the chief minister with the mandate to whip up parliamentary support for himself.

Secondly, he declared to a large Bengali speaking audience in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, that Urdu would be the only state language.


The first action created a precedent for Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad, a former bureaucrat, to dismiss the country's first civilian government in 1953.

Since then, the governor-generals, presidents and army chiefs have dismissed as many as ten civilian governments that together ruled the country for 27 years. The remaining 33 years have seen direct military rule.

Mr Jinnah's second action alienated the Bengali population of the eastern wing, and set a precedent for the West Pakistani rulers to neutralise the numerical superiority of East Pakistan through legal entrapments and outright disenfranchisement.

Baloch militiamen
Baluchistan has a long history of resisting external influences
After the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, the military rulers have repeatedly vitiated the federal and parliamentary character of the 1973 Constitution, thereby alienating the three smaller provinces of the remaining country.

Legal safeguards against tyranny fell by the wayside in 1954 when the Supreme Court justified the governor-general's dismissal of the government and the parliament by invoking the controversial 'theory of necessity'.

The theory has endured, and nearly every dismissal of a civilian government and every military takeover have been upheld by the higher judiciary, undermining democratic traditions.

On their part, the military rulers have co-opted both surrogate politicians and religious extremists as instruments of political strategy and national security policy.

The political recruits have provided a civilian fašade to military governments, while religious - and sometimes ethnic - extremists have tended to distract and destabilise governments run by secular political forces.

Aid to dictators

Last, but not least, the Americans have tended to use their crucial financial and military support selectively against democratic governments.

The pattern is unmistakably clear.

The first large-scale American food and military aid started to pour into Pakistan in late 1953, months after the dismissal of its first civilian government.

Demonstration at Red Mosque
Mullahs of the Red Mosque had openly threatened the government'
It continued for a decade as Pakistan under a military regime joined various US-sponsored defence pacts against the Soviet Union.

The US started having problems with Pakistan when an elected government came to power in 1972, but poured billions of dollars into the country when another military regime took over in 1977 and agreed to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Similarly, while the elected governments that followed during 1988-99 had to live with a decade of US sanctions, the military regime of Gen Musharraf, that ousted the last civilian government in 1999, remains a 'well supplied' ally in the US' 'war on terror'.

There are, however, indications that the Americans may finally be getting fed up with Gen Musharraf, just as they got fed up with General Ayub Khan when he started to warm up to the Soviet Union after the 1965 war with India, or of General Zia-ul Haq when the Soviets decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 1987.

There is also a gathering political storm on the horizon, in keeping with the cyclical pattern of the country's political weather.

As elections approach, exiled leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former prime ministers, threaten to return to the country with the express aim of effecting a regime change.

But Gen Musharraf, like his predecessors, is fighting to keep his military office and his special powers under the constitution to dismiss governments and parliaments.

Thus, the story of Pakistan continues to be one of despotic regimes using religious extremists and external support to keep the secular democratic forces at bay; and when these forces do assert themselves, to tie them down in legal constraints that are designed to ensure their failure.

It is the story of a society that has been going round in circles for the last 60 years.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific