Imran Khan, the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, has been forced to step down from his role after losing a vote of no-confidence in his country’s National Assembly, the equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha. With that, Khan continues the long and unfortunate tradition of a Pakistani PM not finishing a full term. In fact, only 3 PMs have ever made it past the 4-year mark.
Pakistan’s political history has been mired in coup d’etat’s, assassinations, and scandals. The instability amongst the nation’s leadership has spilt down into almost all areas of society resulting in a country that is constantly debated as to whether it is a failed state. Imran Khan, however, has been ousted because of his incompetent leadership. The country’s economy is in tatters with inflation and debt reaching record highs. As the pressure mounted, Khan grew more autocratic, peddling conspiracy theories of foreign interference as being the cause for the no-confidence vote and even going so far as to resort to unconstitutional means to maintain his power. In the end, the orders of the Supreme Court prevailed and Khan has been forced to give way to Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former PM Nawaz Sharif.
The problems that Pakistan face today are simply a reflection of the troubled history of the country. It would be fair to say that these problems began even before Pakistan was founded, or for that matter even conceived of. Britain’s nearly 200-year long colonial rule over India left the subcontinent with innumerable problems. Undoubtedly, Pakistan continues to suffer the consequences of its own colonial past.
The first comprehensive population census of India was completed in the year 1872. For the first time, Indians became conscious of the number of Hindus and Muslims in the country and in which regions they formed a majority. Some scholars believe that the very act of identification in this census began to crystallise the religious differences which had already existed, although not to the extent that they would later develop into. Over the next 3 decades, the British contemplated the idea of dividing the Bengal Presidency, then the largest presidency in India and therefore the most complicated to govern. While the initial idea of division revolved around administrative needs, the eventual partition itself was conducted along religious lines. East and West Bengal were formed, with the Muslim majority in the former and a Hindu majority in the latter. Certainly, the British rulers’ main aim by the time 1905 (the year of the partition) came around was to divide the population in such a way so as to stoke communal tensions. Unity would lead to the people having one common enemy, which would be the British, but with the division they would begin to fight amongst themselves, which is invariably what ended up happening. Ultimately, Bengal was reunified in 1911, but by then the damage was already done.
The partition led to the creation of the Muslim League, the party that would go on to act as the main driving force behind the formation of Pakistan. The League was founded to protect the interests of the Muslims in East Bengal, who at the time felt that the British were mainly only appeasing the Bengali-Hindu Middle-Class, who were also the ones protesting the most. While the Muslims were initially against the partition, they came to find the new arrangement as being advantageous to their interests. Muslims would now be able to rise to political power as they could contest elections from Muslim majority regions, ascertaining a Muslim winner. Thus, the partition of Bengal can retrospectively be held responsible for laying the foundation for the idea of an independent Muslim nation. When reunification occurred in 1911, the League felt as though the decision largely took into consideration the demands of the Hindus only, thereby casting doubt on the self-proclaimed religious neutrality of the British.
During the mid-1920s, the idea of a ‘two-nation theory’ began making the rounds. The Muslim League, and in particular Muhammed Ali Jinnah, were the chief propogators of this idea. They believed that the Muslims on the Indian subcontinent needed their own country, thus beginning the conceptualisation of the state of Pakistan. It was also the first time that a national identity was being based solely on religion. This in turn gave rise to Hindu nationalist tendencies who began to view India along similar lines, as being that of a Hindu nation where other religious minorties would be viewed as second-class Indians. At this point in time, it was still unclear as to how the two nations would co-exist, but the demand for a separate state had begun to gain steam.
Over the next two decades, the Muslim League made efforts to distance itself from the Congress as it believed that only the League was the representative of Muslims on the subcontinent. The Congress, however, maintained that it represented all Indians while also stating that religious issues took a backseat to the social and economic problems that the country was facing. It did not seriously consider the League’s demand for a separate state, nor did the British for that matter. While Jinnah and other leaders continued to spread the idea of two nations, the British believed that in reality what Jinnah wanted was a ‘non-federal arrangement without Hindu domination’.
When the Second World War broke out, the then Viceroy Lord Linlithgow committed Indian troops to the British effort without consulting Indian leaders, which led to the Congress ministers resigning. The Muslim League, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity to further their agenda of Pakistan. They knew that they could offer their support to the war effort in return for being taken serously with respect to their demands. When the war finally ended, general elections were held across the country which saw the Congress and the League win the vast majority of the Hindu and Muslim votes respectively. Jinnah saw this election as proof that the Muslims of the country wanted what he wanted, which was a separate nation. The election also proved to the British that it was time for them to leave India once and for all. Sir Clement Atlee, the PM, had long since been a supporter of Indian independence and had dispatched a Cabinet Mission to India in order to plan for the transfer of power.
Initially, the Cabinet Mission actually succeeded in convincing both the Congress and the League to remain as a united India once the British left. The plan was to divide India into three different provinces where two would be a Muslim majority while the other would be a Hindu majority. The country would still be united witch each province having control over its own affairs, but the Central Government would retain control over defense, communications, and foreign affairs. The League accepted the plan, but Jawaharlal Nehru spoke out against the resolution emphatically as it would leave the center in a weak position. His forceful opposition to the idea is said to have filled the possibilty of a united India irrevocably.
1946 was an especially bloody year in the history of India. Communal violence broke out across the country, with the demand for the partition of India being as strong as it had ever been. With both the British and the Congress realising that they would not be able to control the violence, the leadership reluctantly agreed to the League’s demand and as such, the plans for partition and British withdrawal were now being drawn up. While Gandhi and several prominent leaders were against this, other leaders such as Vallabhai Patel saw no other alternative. There would be a serious threat of civil war if India forced unification accroding to Patel, and this was not worth the price.
The British grew eager to leave India as their post-War financial situation was not in the healthiest of states. Lord Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were tasked with withdrawing from India and drawing the lines of the new borders respectively. The British were initially supposed to leave in 1948, but Mountbatten decided to bring forward the date by a year. Cyril Radcliffe had previously never travelled anywhere east of Paris, but was now responsible for creating two new countries. He completed his task ahead of schedule, but the final borders would not be revealed until after independence was assumed. Meanwhile, Muslims and Hindus were moving across the newly formed borders, and as we all know, the partition of India lead to what is perhaps the most violent period in India’s modern history. Observers from the time claim that while communal violence had been seen before, the violence on display during the partition took on an almost genocidal disposition. The idea seemed to be “to cleanse an existing generation and prevent its future reproduction.” Pakistan celebrated its independence day on the 14th of August 1947, with India following on the next day, on the 15th of August, 1947.
The reason for going into the details of the historical evolution of the idea of Pakistan is to point out certain crucial elements which continue to ail the country even today. When Pakistan was formed, it received 19% of the population of British India, 17% of its resources, and a disproportionate 33% of the military. The leaders of the Muslim League, who would ofcourse make their new homes in the newly formed state, were from all over the subcontinent. The military, however, came largely from the region of Pakistan itself. It is said that “All countries have armies but in Pakistan, things are reversed. Here, it is the army that has a country”. The League’s leaders, having no connection to the their adopted land, relied on religion as the unifying factor. As a result, when the relationship with India should have been one of friendship, it turned into one of intense animosity. The leaders of the League along with the military continued to focus on the few differences they had with India rather than the centuries of shared culture.
Given that the military in Pakistan was as big as it was, it was bound to have undue influence over the country’s politics. This is outlined by the fact that the country has undergone various military coups. In fact, out of Pakistan’s 75 years of independence, 30 have been spent under military rule. The main problem with military leadership is that they are trained to think in a certain way. India was always a threat to Pakistan, and no one is more conscious of this than the military commander. When you have a General ruling over the country, this sentiment becomes embedded in the population. Rather than focusing on development and strengthening diplomatic ties, the Pakistani government over the years has placed an unreasonable amount of interest in its Muslim identity and making India the enemy.
Scholars today claim that Jinnah and the other Muslim League leaders had no real plan for the country when partition was finally achieved. The only ideal was to build an Islamic nation. By refusing to cooperate with India in a manner similar to that of Canada and the USA, both countries economies have suffered, albeit Pakistan’s to a much larger extent. There are no open borders, there is no free trade agreement, nor is there a strategic alliance. Instead, Pakistan has often aligned itself with India’s opponents. In the 60s and 70s, when India was close to the Soviet Union, Pakistan developed strong ties with the US. Today, as India has made efforts to count the US as a friend, Pakistan is attempting a partnership with China. But there is no strategy in Pakistan’s foreign policy. They relied on the US for aid for decades, which has now dried up. This was one the chief sources of funding for the country. In 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was established, and was estimated to greatly benefit the Pakistani economy, but the project has now been stalled. Like India, agriculture makes up a big portion of Pakistan’s economy, but unlike India, our neighbours to the West have little else to boast about. The country is rich in mineral deposits and as such there is potential for a thriving mining industry to emerge, but with political instability it is is difficult to establish a concerted effort to achieve that.
The current crisis in Pakistan is similar to what Sri Lanka is facing in that it is running out of foreign exchange reserves and its debt is at unsustainable levels. Over the last decade or so, the various governments have invested heavily in infrastructure projects which have proven to be less than fruitful. To finance these projects, the government has borrowed externally from sources such as the IMF, Saudi Arabia, and China. Pakistan is also a country that imports a large chunk of its consumption needs, creating a huge gap in its trade deficit. The coronovrius pandemic only further exacerbated the situation with Pakistan sufferring the highest inflation in the world in 2020.
The US has no reason to provide aid to Pakistan as it has withdrawn from Afghanistan. China will not give the country any more loans as it is already owed a quarter of the total external debt that Pakistan must currently repay. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is tricky as militants from Pakistan are being recruited to join the Houthi rebels in Yemen who view the Saudis as their enemies. The only option left is to either borrow from the IMF, which will mean that the government will have to hand over significant control over monetary and fiscal policy decisions, or enter into a period of austerity. At the same time, they need to sort out their political situation as well.
Imran Khan’s exit is merely another hapless chapter in the history of the country’s politics. The idea of Pakistan is less than a century old. The very foundation of the nation was based on conflict with India and with Hindus rather than a collective ideal worth striving towards. This has taken up too much of the public’s thought process in Pakistan and has proven to be a handicap in the development of the country which tells us that they need to reimagine their destiny in order to truly start developing as a nation. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, serves as a good example of what the country can be if it is not continously mired in disputes internally and externally. Until the country fundamentally reorients itself, it will continue to be viewed as a failing state.