Pakistan: Ideological Moorings and Identity Crisis

-Sreedhar Rao, Senior Fellow, IDSA


Since the beginning of the 1990s, one question that is haunting many Pakistani well wishers is, where is that country heading? Some observers and commentators have gone to the extent of calling it a "failed state." Others have even started expressing fears that the nation state of Pakistan may collapse if corrective measures are not taken immediately to sort out the contradictions within the body polity. Whatever may be merits and demerits of these assessments and predictions, there is near unanimity among Pakistanis and among its well wishers outside, that the nation is in a major crisis or as some would like to say, Pakistan, after fifty years of independence, is at the cross-roads.

An attempt has been made in this paper to examine this peculiar situation in which Pakistan has placed itself in its 50th year of independence within the framework of the ideology and identity of Pakistan.

Ideological Moorings

Before analysing the ideological moorings of Pakistan as a nation state, three factors need to be noted. First, Pakistan is the first state to be carved out in the post-World War II with religion as an ideology.1 In fact, the only other state that took birth with similar orientation was Israel which came into existence eight months after the birth of Pakistan. However, the difference between the two is that while Israel became the homeland of Zionists of the entire world, Pakistan remained a home for only a section of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.2

Second, a close scrutiny of the history of the Indian subcontinent from the 18th century onwards clearly shows that the Muslim aristocracy was not reconciled to the fact that they had lost their Empire to the British. And the ascendancy of the East India Company first and then by Her Majesty's Government from London, was interpreted as a failure of the Muslims to adhere to the basic tenets of Islam. In retrospect one could draw the conclusion that this rationalisation was made by the Muslim aristocracy just to cover up their failure in the governance of state. In the process, the Indianisation of Islam, in terms of absorbing the progressive ideas that started filtering from Europe, was rejected. Interestingly, this was the time when non-Muslim reformist movements, especially among Hindus, were born and infused some of the Western liberal ideas into the Indian polity. This enabled the Hindus to give up some of the dogmatic approach to religion and its rituals.3

In other words, by the end of the 19th century, the elite among the followers of Islam, by and large, were not able to cope with the process of modernisation that was set in by the British rule. This failure of the elite among the Indian Muslims resulted in recourse to religion, more and more dogmatically. On the other hand, the virtues of the European civilisation, were quickly absorbed by the rest and incorporated into the body polity. This resulted in distict compartmentalisation of the Indian society into Muslims versus the rest. This percolated to the lower levels over a period of time, resulting in Muslims, especially in northern India, getting alienated from the rest of the people. This was cleverly exploited by the elite among the Muslims to argue that Muslims and Hindus cannot live together.4

Lastly, this Muslim aristocracy's unwillingness to give up their expensive habits and change with the times resulted in their being relegated to the sidelines in the emerging socio-economic set-up in British India. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Muslim socio-economic status reached its lowest level; and they found it extremely difficult to compete with other communities. Once again, these frustrations remained largely a north-eastern India phenomenon.5

These frustrations among the Muslims were projected by the elite as exploitation of the Muslims by the Hindus. It took a concrete shape, in poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal's speech at Allahabad in December 1930.6 Giving it a rationalisation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah wrote to Gandhi that "Hindus and Muslims belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions."7

The idea further crystallised in the form of the Lahore Resolution of 1940 of the Muslim League and Pakistan was born in August 1947. In other words, a group of people among Muslims of the Indian subcontinent achieved their objective in less than 17 years. And this was achieved as a part of the British departure from India. For the British leaving India, the main force was the Indian National Congress (INC). The Muslim League, while supporting the INC's cause, managed to have their share of the cake without much effort.

As has been mentioned earlier, some Pakistani commentators also argue that before the British came, Muslims were the rulers of the Indian subcontinent (they mean Delhi), and this made them look upon the British as usurpers of their power and authority. The Hindus, on the other hand, collaborated with the enemy's enemy, that is the British, to overcome the Muslims to recapture positions of power and authority. In the process, the Muslims felt insecure and demanded a separate homeland for themselves.

Whatever may have been the compulsions of the Muslim League for the creation of Pakistan, three things have happened which question the basic premise for the creation of Pakistan.

Foremost among them is that a majority of the Muslims decided to stay back in to India. In the process, they disproved the thesis that Muslims in India were being exploited by non-Muslims. One could even argue that this perception of non-Muslims persecuting Muslims was largely a phenomenon of the elite Muslims living in the northern parts of India only.

Second, the Indian republic declared itself as a secular state from the beginning and ensured equality of all religions before the state. This Indian experiment of unity in diversity became unique in contemporary world history. This proved to be against the very spirit of Pakistan; and from time to time, some of the Pakistani intelligensia tried to ridicule the Indian state's secularism and majority rule.

Lastly, even after fifty years of independence, Pakistan was not able to absorb the Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan. They are still known as Mojahirs; and looked upon by a section of the Pakistani elite as aliens. In the process these Indian migrants were not able to develop the emotional linkages with Pakistan; and over the years they acquired a separate identity of themselves. After five generations, some of these Mojahirs started talking in terms of a separate state for themselves.

The same cannot be said about people who migrated from Pakistan to India. They were rehabilitated quickly and made partners in nation building. With the result, they developed their emotional bondages quickly with the new nation.

In addition, the founders of Pakistan assumed that followers of the great religion Islam can become a homogeneous group. This assumption proved wrong first in December 1971 when Bengali speaking Muslims separated themselves from West Pakistan and became an independent state, Bangladesh. Again with the sectarian differences surfacing in the 1980s and 1990s, first the Ahmediayas were declared as non-Muslims. The story has not ended there. The Shias and Sunnis started a fresh round of violence in the name of cleansing the polity. A new dimension was added to this controversy in terms of the Mojahirs--whether they are Pakistanis or not. In the process, the issue of who among the two--Shias or Sunnis--should hold the reins of power in Pakistan became a controversy questioning the very ideological foundations of the state. One could even say that more Muslims were killed in these sectarian clashes in Pakistan, than say, in its three wars with India.

Here the dilemma of Pakistani Constitutional makers was far more visible. The lawyers turned politicians of the Pakistan movement wanted that Ijma and Ijtihad (consensus of the community and the concept of continuing interpretation and judgement of Islamic Law) should form the basis for the democratic process. In contrast stood the traditional Ulema whose position was a legalistic one based on the unity of religion and politics in Islam. And the third group was led by Islamic fundamentalists who had some romantic ideas and tried to define Islamic identity.

In other words, from the beginning, the ideological moorings of the Pakistani state were fragile. The assumptions made by the founding fathers proved to be not close to the ground reality. Unfortunately, the elite of Pakistan, even after assuming power failed to acknowledge this fact and did nothing to strengthen the ideological foundations of the new state.

The first Constitutional Assembly of August 1947, in spite of outliving its mandated terms of five years, failed to produce a Constitution defining the core values of the new state. Its only achievement was the Objective Resolution of March 1949, which specified that the Constitution would be Islamic, democratic and federal. But there was no agreement on how these objectives would take form, no details and, no calming of fears of minorities. The second Constituent Assembly did manage to produce a Constitution in 1956, but it was abrogated by General Ayub Khan in October 1958 on the eve of general elections in March 1959.

In the process, the new nation state's elite set themselves an abstract goal--surpassing India in every sphere. This became more or less the basic theme of the state of Pakistan. This goal made the country enter into all types of alliances (e.g. South-East Asia Treaty Organisation—SEATO and Central Treaty Organisation—CENTO) without fully understanding the subtle conditionalities that went with them and the impact they would have on the ideological foundations of the country.

The Sandhurst trained General found everything wrong with the political process that was evolving in Pakistan. He felt that Pakistani politicians were a bunch of "rascals."8 His Western education and long years of military training made him look at Pakistan polity as secular. He also perceived, like the politicians, that surpassing India was the primary task and in the process rapid economic development became a watchword. In fact, Z.A. Suleri, a leading political commentator of Pakistan, writing about these developments observes that Ayub Khan assuming power "was a turning point in our history." Not only democracy was given the go-by "but what was the real tragedy, the ideology (of Pakistan) was consigned to a limbo" (emphasis added). He goes on to add that the administration might have run well for a number of years and industry might have flourished and the industrial magnates might have had a field day during the Ayub years, but "the spirit of the people was crushed and the destiny of the country was changed."9

The developments in the subsequent years no way lessened the seeds of secularism. By declaring "idhar hum udhar tum" (we are here, you are there), Z.A. Bhutto tore apart the election results of 1970 and in the process buried permanently the concept of religion as a bond. And this automatically brought in race, language, and geography to the centre-stage of Pakistani polity. Bhutto went a step further by declaring that there are two majority parties as per the election results--one in West Pakistan and another in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and he reinforced this arguement by boycotting the newly elected Constituent Assembly session. What happened afterwards is well known to all students of the subcontinent's history.10

Z.A. Bhutto went a step a further by quickly according recognition to the new nation state, Bangladesh and eliminating any prospects of reunion with Pakistan, even at a later stage.

The Pakistani armed forces' dismal performance in the December 1971 war with the India-Bangladesh forces, and the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers to the joint command had a devastating effect on the Pakistani national psyche. The very basis for the creation of Pakistan--Islamic oneness, and in the process, the much talked about two-nation theory--got invalidated. The national agenda of overtaking India in all spheres by the Pakistan elite, especially the armed forces, proved to be a myth; and Pakistan failed miserably in achieving its goal.11

The folklore and myths built around the Pakistani armed forces (one of the popular slogans in the 1950s and 1960s used to be: one Pakistani is equal to ten Hindustanis) proved to be no longer valid; and suddenly the nation found that it could not defend itself against an adversary. This sent the nation into a spin.

Interestingly, a majority of the Pakistani commentators blame themselves for these unfortunate developments. To quote Suleri again, "The worst thing that has happened in our history is the installation of Bhutto in power after the break up of Pakistan...The empowerment of Bhutto empowered secularism and banished the concept of Muslim nationhood on which Pakistan is based. Let us face the fact that Bhutto counts far more in (today's) political arena than Quaid-e-Azam. How many parties are fighting in his name and how many are the flag bearers of the founders of Pakistan? As a result, we are confronted with the bitter reality that there is no sense of nationhood around. The man who mobilised Muslims into nationhood and led them to creation of Pakistan is dead and buried fathoms deep. His heritage has been lost" (emphasis added).12

General Zia-ul-Haq did try to turn the tide against secularism and bring in Islam back to the national philosophy of Pakistan. But Zia's Islam and Muslim nationhood were totally at variance with what Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah pursued. In addition, Zia had three major disadvantages as compared to Quaid-e-Azam. Zia was not a leader. He usurped power through questionable means. This resulted in his lack of any legitamacy to rule. Therefore, in spite of his best intentions, to bring the Islam of his interpretation, the people of Pakistan always looked upon his actions as made to consolidate his position. Added to this, Zia was in no way a charismatic leader like Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah or Bhutto. He was known as an average soldier, who came to the top by an accident of history. Lastly, unlike Bhutto or Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah, he had no party to support his programmes and policies. Though did try to cultivate theocratic parties like the Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam who lacked any mass following.

In these circumstances, Gen Zia adopted coerceive tactics to bring back his interpretation of Islam as the core value of the nation state of Pakistan. This automatically resulted in a dilemma about whether Pakistan should move towards the secularism of Ayub-Bhutto or the Islamisation of the Gen Zia variety. In the process, the foundations of the Pakistani nation state got further weakened.

If Gen Zia had continued in office, he would probably have made his ideology acceptable to the people of Pakistan. But that is a moot point to discuss. His sudden death in an aircrash and the return of the popular government in 1988 in no way altered the situation. The two terms of Benazir and one term of Nawaz Sharif have shown that the ruling elite of Pakistan still vacillate between secularism and Islam, making compromises wherever and whenever necessary.

Ideology Dilemma in the Armed Forces

The ascendancy of the armed forces in the Pakistani polity resulted in a sort of politico-military fusion leading to the armed forces developing stakes in keeping their predominant position intact, if not better, in the evolutionary process of the nation state. Unfortunately, the Pakistani armed forces are not a cohesive unit, as they were projected to be, to take up such a role. This resulted in three significant developments.

Foremost, they proved to be professionally not as competent as they had projected themselves to be to the Pakistani people. In the three major wars they fought with India, from their own accounts, they lost the 1948 war and were defeated in the 1971 war. In fact, 90,000 troops surrendering to the Indo-Bangladesh joint command, in December 1971 lowered their image considerably. Every Pakistani felt, understandably, that their Generals, who were the rulers, had let them down. They failed to perform their basic duty.

This brought to the forefront a number of issues both at the popular level and within the armed forces. The most important is the strong criticism against the Punjab province's domination of the armed forces justified on the British created myth that Punjabis are a martial race. This resulted in subnationalist feelings emerging everywhere. And the ruling elite instead of quietly sorting it out, decided to ignore it.

At the same time, the Pakistani armed forces, to demonstrate that they mean business, behaved ruthlessly, first in East Pakistan (1970-71), then in Baluchistan (1972-73) against civilians during Z.A. Bhutto's regime and again in Sindh (1993-95). This resulted in further strengthening the people's perception that the Pakistani armed forces can at best deal with unarmed Pakistani civilians only.

Second, there is an ideological debate going on in the Pakistani armed forces. The central point of this debate is whether Pakistani armed forces are to be secular or whether they are soldiers of Islam. The oath taken by every Jawan and officer of the Pakistani armed forces reads as follows:

"I, solemnly swear that I will bear the true faith and allegiance to Pakistan and uphold the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which embodies the will of the people, that I will not engage myself in any unlawful activities whatever, and that I will honestly and faithfully serve Pakistan in the Pakistani Army/Navy/Air Force as required by and under the law.

"May Allah Almighty help and guide me (Ameen)."

Secularists argue that the Constitution of Pakistan embodies the will of the people rather than the command of the Almighty Allah. The people of Pakistan are a composite entity. Besides, Muslims, there are Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Agha Khanis, etc. in Pakistan. The armed forces have, besides Muslims, a sprinkling of all these non-Muslims in their rank and file. According to Brig (Retd) A.R. Siddiqui, "As per the term Islamic Republic of Pakistan, used in the official oath, the state per se is a secular institution and functions on secular lines, regardless of the prefix 'Islam' attaching to the character."13

The armed forces' sole official organ, Hilal, in its issue dated January 27-February 2, 1996, wrote of an "order" received "to secularise" the armed forces. The editorial is untriguingly entitled Afwaji Pakistan se Islam Ki Rukhsati (exit or explusion of Islam from Pakistani armed forces).14 The editorial which opens with the cryptic line Hukm aya hai (an order has been received) without mentioning the issuing authority, states:

(a) the armed forces of Pakistan need to be secularised;

(b) the armed forces of Pakistan should be patterned (or recognised) after the armed forces of certain countries of the Middle East and Africa;

(c) all officers possessed of Islamic thought and action should be scrupulously weeded out of the armed forces; and

(d) promotions of "bearded officers" stopped. No bearded officer or Jawan to be seen in the armed forces in the future.

While this secularisation of the Pakistani armed forces was going on, Hilal also carried articles and editorials calling Pakistani armed forces the soldiers of Islam. For instance, in its Pakistan Day issue (March 23, 1996, datelined Lahore where the Pakistani Resolution was adopted) Hilal spoke of the armed forces of Pakistan as "soldiers of Allah," the Navy as "the war cry of Khalid" and the Air Force as "the charge of Hamiza." According to one commentator, in this whole exercise of Hilal there was little to indicate anything more than the use of a motivational ploy as distinct from a shared strategic perception.15

What is interesting is that similar sentiments were voiced by the Chief of Army Staff, General Jehangir Karamat at the Pakistan Military Academy parade on April 11, 1996. He told the gentleman cadets:

"These men are true soldiers of Islam and they value truth, justice, impartiality and courage--both moral and physical--and you can lead them well if your own conduct is based on the values of Islam."

Similar sentiments were echoed by the then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, too. In the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) graduation parade on October 12, 1995, Benazir Bhutto's Defence Minister, Aftab Shah Mirani, went a step further. According to him, the Pakistan military establishment "is motivated by Islamic values and imbued with true Islamic traditions."16

This ideological debate in the premier institution of the Pakistan polity indicates that even the armed forces, due to the contradictions in the polity, lost their bearings. The leadership's effort to project itself as Islamic in character, clearly indicates that the rest of the communities of the country are no longer relevant. This is more or less the mistake Pakistan made up to 1971, resulting in the country getting divided into two. At that time, the Pakistani ruling elite failed to respect the Bengali sentiments and treat them as equal partners. One gets the feeling that the same is being repeated even now.

Identity Crisis

This resulted in the second problem for Pakistan--an identity crisis. For some inexplicable reasons, Pakistan does not want to own the rich history of 3,000 years of the Indian subcontinent. They know that they cannot claim to be the sole inheritors of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the subsequent history of the Indian subcontinent. This becomes quite clear from even a cursory glance at the Pakistani school level or college level history books. In fact, Pakistani historians are in a dilemma about whether to accept the dynamic rule of the Mauryas and the Golden Age of Guptas of ancient Indian history or not. Similarly, whether King Ashoka, who is a part of the Indian subcontinent folklore, belongs to them or to India. In fact, some of the Pakistani history books skip or make just a cursory mention of the some of the glorious periods of ancient Indian history. Apparently, Pakistani historians feel that projecting these Hindu and Buddhist Kings may place them in a tight spot.

Similarly, the Mughal Kings ruled from Delhi and not from Lahore or Rawalpindi. After Aurangazeb, the Mughal dynasty squandered their riches and proved to be incompetent rulers. This enabled the British to usurp power from the mid-18th century onwards. These are well recorded facts of history. But Pakistani historians refuse to accept these facts of history. Some Pakistanis even argue that the British managed to usurp power because Hindu Maharajas collaborated with the colonial masters. If one goes by the history books, nothing significant happened between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the advent of the Mughal period in the Indian subcontinental history!

Even in modern Indian history, Pakistani historians refuse to accept that Gandhi's non-violence and non-cooperation prompted the British to leave India and think in terms of independence, and Jinnah joined it only in the early 1930s.

At another level, Pakistan had the problem with their national language, Urdu. Whether the birthplace of Urdu is Lahore or Lucknow or Hydrabad in southern India, can be debated endlessly. Pakistanis claim Muslims brought Urdu to the Indian subcontinent and made it the official language of the Delhi durbar of the Mughal Kings. But many Indian Muslims feel that it became a rich language only in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) and Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh). And interestingly enough, Urdu has been recognised as an official language by the Indian Constitution.

The Pakistani ruling elite tried to impose Urdu as a national language on its former eastern wing (now Bangladesh) resulting in large scale violence.

This unwillingness on the part of Pakistan to accept that Indian civilisation is a common heritage of both the countries brought in a lot of distortions in the Pakistani psyche. The information revolution from the 1970s onwards proved to many Pakistanis that what they have been told and studied is totally baseless and false. They realised that this quest for a separate identity from India brought in complete distortions about their roots. And after the 1971 India-Pakistan war, when Pakistan was divided into two, the myth of religious bondage was totally exposed.

As will be discussed later, Pakistan's quest to identify itself with the Islamic world and trace its roots to the Arab world created further complications. In fact, whether Pakistan belongs to South Asia or to the Islamic world of Persian Gulf/West Asia which in many ways is alien to them, except in the context of religion, created further problems for its people.

In the process, Pakistan got confused with its historical and cultural bearings. This get reflected in instances like in the late 1970s and 1980s when the film Mughal-e-Azam (history of Great Mughal King Akbar's son Saleem and his beloved Anarkali), was produced in India and telecast over the Indian Television, and everybody in the Indian subcontinent was able to watch it. Life in Pakistan used to come to a standstill on such an occasion, as everybody would be glued to the TV. An average Pakistani who watched it started asking how the "Hindu" India could show such a story on the government controlled television, that too about a Mughal Emperor. When some religious fanatics in Pakistan called it a cultural invasion, the average Pakistani got further confused. He was not clear how it could be a cultural invasion? All that was shown was a beautiful love story of a Muslim prince, and in all the right earnestness by an Indian film director. And when the film won laurels all over India, a discerning Pakistani realised that there is something wrong in what he reads and is told.

One could extend this to music, art, literature, etc. Indian music is copied in Pakistan and vice versa. Lata Mangeshkar and M.S. Subbalakshmi are as popular in Pakistan as they are in India.

In other words, when the electronic media broke the artificial barriers created by the ruling elite, an average Pakistani was able to sort out myth and reality about India and Pakistan. And in the process, he realised that his roots lie somewhere else and not in Pakistan. One could say this resulted in the lowering of stakes in the nation state he is living in. The contrast in governance of the nation state between the two countries became too obvious. While India was able to evolve a political system based on majority rule, Pakistan degenerated into a sort of authoritarianism and rule of the few. When India is maturing as a democracy, Pakistan is still experimenting with what form of government it should have. If recent reports in the Indian media are to be believed, the Council for Defence and National Security, created by a Presidential Ordinance in 1997 is going to evaluate the performance of the elected representatives.

This crisis of identity resulted in two important developments. First, nobody seems to have developed a stake in the Pakistani state. In fact, the ruling elite used the state of Pakistan to amass their personal wealth, rather than working towards nation building. The structure of governance changed according to the whims and fancies of the ruling elite at any given point of time. And the people who wield maximum firepower, the armed forces, became the sole arbitrators in deciding who should rule.

Second, as it happens in such situations, the credibility of the government got reduced to almost zero level. The absence of a credible government resulted in social development becoming the first casualty. Even after 50 years of independence, Pakistan cannot claim that it has any high quality educational institution in the country about which the country can boast. The ruling elite seems to be have lost its direction and nobody seems to be clear about what to do now. The best example is, when the nation is in its worst financial crisis, the armed forces decide to modernise their equipment and start negotiations for buying a French fighter aircraft!

In other words, as the years passed by, the ideological moorings of Pakistan started petering out resulting in an identity crisis. Only the elite of Pakistan refused to acknowledge it. In fact, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, visualised these problems in 1947 itself. In his famous speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in August 1947, he said "...change your past and work together in the spirit that every one of you, no matter what community he belongs to, is first, second and last, a citizen of the state with equal rights." Apparently this was lost sight of in the first few months of the creation of Pakistan; and Quaid-e-Azam realised it. If Jinnah's last words, according to the doctor attending on him were that he committed a "blunder" by creating the state of Pakistan17 are true, then he must have foreseen that his successors were not going to uphold the values he strived for. Recalling these words in the 50th year of independence of Pakistan is a harsh judgement on men and matters of five generations. But that is the way the history of Pakistan is unfolding.



1. Ian Stephens, Pakistan, third edn., (London: Ernest Benn, 1967), p. 13-16.

2. Ibid.

3. V.V. Nagarkar, Genesis of Pakistan (New Delhi: Allied, 1975), See chapters 1, 2 and 3. Also see Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, The Emergence of Pakistan, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967) chapters 1, 2 and 12; and K.K. Aziz, A History of the Idea of Pakistan, (Lahore: Vanguard, 1987).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid. Nagarkar makes a detailed analysis of this point.

6. Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, n. 3.

7. Ibid.

8. By 1958, Ayub and his associates became receptive to the idea that they should turn out the "inefficient and rascally" politicians. See Area Handbook Series, Pakistan: A Country Study, (US Government, Washington D.C: 1984, p. 43.

9. Z.A. Suleri, "At the Crossroads," The News, January 21, 1997.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Brig (Retd) A.R. Siddiqi, "The Failed Coup: Islam and the Army," The Nation, August 12, 1996.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Time, December 20, 1996.