Book Review – The Idea of Pakistan

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Name of the Book The Idea of Pakistan
Author Stephen P Cohen
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Disclaimer: Facts have been taken from the book “The Idea of Pakistan which is being reviewed here. Along with the content of the book, my personal analysis is also added in this article for maintaining the flow of the article.

Creation of Pakistan

PAKISTAN was not created as a natural state but it was a Historic eventuality. Pakistan came into being as a result of the so-called “Churchill Doctrine” instead of the synergized efforts undertaken by the sole Muslim political outfit, the All India Muslim League. Churchill doctrine says that the west was fearful of the spread of communism as from the then Soviet Union to the sub-continent to China, the leaders were socialists and communists in their outlook. Communist ideology was an insignificant role during the struggle for freedom. 

If we look at Indian leadership it was continued till the end of the reign of Indira Gandhi. Britishers knew that under the leadership of Pundit Nehru, it would be titled toward the communist bloc. In fact, their calculation was right. Pundit Nehru played a prominent role in the formation of NAM (A non-aligned movement) with little tilt toward the USSR. Thus, Britishers showed the seed of partition of India so that divided part can be used in coming future to contain ‘communist’. 


I think Britishers were successful in his vision “Churchill doctrine” in later days. Pakistan was created, to be used as an Islamic state, by the then US and UK presidents in the era of 1940s. A triangular symbiotic relationship among the USA, Saudi, and Pakistan was developed in order to get benefits from Pakistan to contain USSR. USA geopolitical compulsion was to contain ‘communist’, Saudi Arab’s King political compulsion to continue Kingship or Monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s internal political compulsion was counter India. 


Their vision was made with a program in which ‘Wahhabism’ was created by Saudi, proliferated by Pakistan, and used by the USA. In return, the USA took care of both Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia. It was further aggravated by the dictatorial Saudi-led Wahhabism. It ends Sufism in the south Punjab province of Pakistan. Arabic Islam was imported to Pakistan by sacrificing the Indo-Islam civilization. 


In this book a reflection is found which shows that Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan was that of a secular state, Iqbal’s vision was suffused with religious overtones. In fact, Iqbal has also started his journey with a secular attitude but later he became communal. Iqbal once wrote ‘Sare Jahan se achha Hindosta hamara-hamra’ and the same Iqbal later on writes “Tarana-e-Milli” in which he says ‘Chin o Arab hamaraa hindostaa hamaara, Muslim hain hum; watan hai saara jahan hamara’. 


In a later phase, the basic difference between Jinnah and Iqbal was glaring. Jinnah wanted “A State FOR THE MUSLIMS” where minorities are also accorded first-class rights. He launched a political movement that converted the Ideology of Pakistan into ‘Political Reality. Iqbal wanted “State OF THE MUSLIMS”. It signifies a piece of land purely for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

Kashmir Question

Stephen Cohen rightfully says that the relentless pursuit of Kashmir has done more damage to Pakistan than any other single issue. Even after the massive defeat in the hand of India and the secession of East Pakistan as ‘Bangladesh’ Pakistan didn’t leave the issue of Kashmir. Often Pakistan Army spokesperson Asif Ghafoor along with Pakistan PM Imran Khan used to say that “Kashmir is our jugular vein and we will go to any lengths to protect it” even in 2019. In Hindi there is one idiom “रस्सी जल गई, ऐंठन नहीं गई”. 

That’s why in the street of Islamabad, it is said that “Siyasat petrol se Nahi Kashmir Cause se chalti hai”. Kashmir’s cause has damaged Pakistan a lot and still, it is damaging Pakistan. The same Bangladesh (Erstwhile East Pakistan) which is oppressed by present Pakistan (Erstwhile West Pakistan) has moved a far ahead from Pakistan. Today there is no match between Pakistan and Bangladesh. 


After the 1971 war with India, Pakistan took two steps for Kashmir. First, Pakistan understood very well that Pakistan couldn’t win a conventional war against India. Even today, the same thing is admitted by Pakistan PM Imran Khan at UNGA 2019. Pakistan has defeated three wars (1947, 1965, and 1971) in the hand of India. Pakistan has adopted the strategy of waging a covert war in Kashmir. Thus, the “Bleed India by thousand cuts” policy was adopted by Pakistan against India.  It has armed, trained, and funded guerrillas that operate in Kashmir as ‘freedom fighters.’ 


Second, Pakistan has started developing nuclear weapons hand in hand. After the development of nuclear weapons, Pakistan has reduced the probability of conventional war near zero where they were very weak. On the other hand, they capitalized the past experiences and started the covert war on the line of the Afghanistan war against Russia. 


Since the Afghan-Soviet war ended in 1989, these groups have embraced the use of terror for political gains and have even attacked targets in India. After the end of the cold war, the USA has almost withdrawn support from Pakistan. From then till today, Pakistan used to show its presence in Kashmir through covert operation. The recent operation of Pakistan resulted in the Uri attack, Pathankot attack, and Pulwama attack. Stephen Cohen is probably correct in his assessment that Kashmir is more of an excuse for Pakistan to harass India internationally and keep their hatred towards India alive internally.

Three conflicting visions for the future of Pakistan

Cohen presents three conflicting visions for the future of Pakistan: a state for the Muslims of South Asia, an Islamic state, and a democratic state. 

First, A state for Muslims of South Asia: The first vision fell apart in 1971 with the secession of East Pakistan as ‘Bangladesh’. At partition in 1947, Pakistan accounted for two-thirds of the Muslims in South Asia. Now it accounts for only one-third, negating the main tenet of the two-nation theory. In fact, still, secessionism movements are going in Pakistan. The biggest challenge for this conception is ‘Balochistan’ at this point of time. Pakistan is still unable to manage its regional aspirations. Thus, even the conception of becoming a state for Muslims of Pakistan is in danger, the question of being the leader of Muslims of South Asia is out of the syllabus for this time. 


Second, An Islamic state: There is no unique interpretation of an Islamic state since there are numerous sects and sub-sects within the Islamic faith. Thus, any brand of Islam that comes into power would seek to impose itself over the others. Their major doctrinal differences create polarization and tensions. Apart from various sects and sub-sects, the regional issues sometimes act as an antidote to the vision of the Islamic state. For example, People of Sindh identify themselves as Sindhi first followed by Muslims and Pakistan. The reason behind their identification is being cited even by the famous Sindhi Leader, Ghulam Murtaza Syed as “I am Sindhi for 5,000 years, I am Muslim for 1400 years, I am Pakistani for 63 years.” 


Third, A democratic state: Democracy has, historically, been faced with major challenges, especially the all-powerful military juggernaut. There is no doubt that the Military has been all-weather powerful in Pakistan. You can understand the democratic nature of Pakistan through the event of the Kargil war in 1999. Neither the civilian government of Pakistan nor the air force of Pakistan was informed about the mis-adventurous attack by Pakistan from the back. The then Air marshal of Pakistan, Mohammad Asghar Khan has exposed the Pakistan army and the democracy of Pakistan in an interview. Thus, for the establishment of Pakistan, ‘Democracy’ is deemed as an ideal case in which the probability of existence on the ground is zero. 

Pakistan into the clutches of oligarch

Pakistan fell into the grip of an oligarchy comprising the army, the civil service, and the feudal lords. This would be the probable reason why Pakistani thinker, Hamza Alavi defined Pakistan as an “over-developed state”. Stephen Cohen rightfully criticized militarism in Pakistan. He describes the way the Pakistani army has harmed national security. Pakistan’s army is nearly 6 lakhs which is 50% greater in size than it was during the 1971 war with India. 

Logically, after the division of Pakistan into almost two equal parts, the army should be reduced. But increasing of the army in Pakistan by 50% is nothing but the diversion of resources from social, political, and economic development. Abbottabad Commission, set up by Pakistan for inquiry of surgical strikes done by the USA and the existence of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, acknowledged the fact the Pakistan army has compromised the national security of Pakistan.


Pakistani generals steadfastly hold that “What is good for the army is good for Pakistan.” Stephen Cohen further claims, “The army lacks the capability to fix Pakistan’s problems, but it is unwilling to share power with other state institutions and the political system the opportunity to learn and grow. ” Western countries have often supported militarism in Pakistan. Samuel P Huntington of Harvard called Field Marshal Ayub Khan a Solon (A great Athenian lawgiver). Solon made reforms in Athens but failed. He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda, and in defense of his constitutional reforms. 


Stephen Cohen gives an account of how the west has supported militarism in Pakistan. Nixon praised General Yahya for giving him the opening to China. Reagan and Thatcher praised General Zia for being a bulwark of freedom against the USSR. Bush praised General Musharraf for his role in the war on terror.


Stephen Cohen recognized Pakistan army as “All countries have their own armies, but (in case of Pakistan), an army has its own country.” This quote of him has been so famous that many contemporary books have quoted the same. Pakistan has the culture of Army for Rent. They rented an army for the world which has benefited only the families of Army officers. In the name of national interest, the Pakistan army justifies their corruptions. 


Have you ever seen children of the Indian army studying in the world’s prestigious colleges like Howard or LSE? But children of the Pakistani army study there. You will be astonished to know that the same Pakistan Army was hired against the people of Palestine. Israeli General noted that Jordan with the Pak army under Zia-ul-Haq killed more Palestinians in 11 days than Israel could kill in 20 years. Pakistan supplied military support to the USA during the cold war & Saudi in Yemen. In return, the chief of the army gets handsome presents.  

Policy of Pakistan

Pakistan’s geographical position is more bargainable than India’s. Pakistan gives access to west Asian countries. China is attracted toward Pakistan due to its strategic position which gives access to the Arabian Sea to China. In fact, to the landlocked countries in West Asia, Pakistan plays a vital role in connecting South Asia to West Asian countries. Stephen Cohen rightly analyzes Pakistan’s attitude on page number 270 that “Something or someone will always come to Pakistan’s rescue because of its location”. During the cold war time, Pakistan was saved by the USA and its geopolitical ally Saudi Arabia. In the 21st century, Pakistan is being saved by China to some extent. 

On page number 270, Stephen Cohen claims that “Pakistan now negotiates with its allies and friends by pointing a gun to its own head”. The best example can be quoted from Pakistan PM Imran’s speech at UNGA.  He says “If the Kashmir conflict moves towards the war then remember both nations have nuclear weapons and no one is a winner in a nuclear war. It will have global ramifications. The superpowers of the world have a huge responsibility. Whether they support us or not, Pakistan will do everything possible”. Back-to-back verbal threats are being expressed by Pakistan so that India and the world could come forward for the negotiation on Kashmir. 


Pakistan’s establishment is running on ‘Belief System’. Stephen Cohen opines that ‘the establishment’ is an informal political system that comprises of the senior ranks of the military, the civil service, the judiciary, and other elites possessing a common set of beliefs. 

  • First, India has to be countered at every move and issue militarily, thereby giving the military a primary role in Pakistan. 
  • Second, The national interest is understood only by the army, not by civilian politicians. 
  • Third, Nuclear weapons assist Pakistan with security and status. 
  • Fourth, Kashmir is the unfinished business of the partition plan. 
  • Fifth, The armed forces are considered a “model” and democracy is seen as good only as long as it does not interfere with the governance of the elite. 
  • Sixth, Large-scale social reforms such as land redistribution are unacceptable. 
  • Seventh, Washington should not be trusted but should be taken maximum advantage of. 
  • Eight, The media need to be on a tight leash.

Way Ahead

Stephen Cohen proposed Six future scenarios for Pakistan. First, the Continuation of the status quo, which involves rule by the oligarchy, now known as the Establishment. Second, Liberal, secular democracy. Third, Soft authoritarianism. Fourth, An Islamist state. Fifth, Divided Pakistan. Sixth, Postwar Pakistan. 

However, even after the 15 years of the book, still there is no sign which could claim that Pakistan is moving toward liberal democracy. In the views of Stephen Cohen, the army remains the biggest threat to democracy in Pakistan, not corrupt politicians. Elsewhere, he has called the Pakistan army the largest political party. Even when it is not in power, it has unlimited access to the government’s budgetary and foreign exchange resources and dominates the nation’s foreign policy. 


So far, the attitude of Pakistan says that Pakistan is following either the first option ‘Continuation of the status quo’ which involves rule by the oligarchy, or the fifth option i.e. Pakistan is gradually moving toward divided Pakistan. Earlier Pashtuns who were engaged in their ‘war of Jihad’ have now refused to do so. Pashtun people are asking that now the turn of becoming Jihadi is the Punjabi Muslims of Pakistan. A thrust not from only Pashtuns but from Sindh and Balochistan is also increasing.
Rest options like ‘secular democracy’ are not possible for Pakistan till Army rule and the dream of becoming an “Islamic state” is also not possible due to many sects and sub sects in Islam that claim undisputed superiority. 


The ‘Idea of Pakistan’ book still holds relevance with respect to Pakistan. Stephen Cohen rightly says “Pakistani army is long on memory and short on foresight, but he does not discuss why that is the case or whether it will ever change.” Thus, till the mental revolution among the civilian masses not happening in Pakistan on the line of ‘Arab Spring,’ there is no end to the predicament.
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