Pakistan has been stifled from birth

By Khaled Diab

Why does , despite its size and diversity, seem so much more stable than ?

The rivalry between India and Pakistan goes back to partition. Photo ©Copyright - Khaled Diab
The rivalry between India and Pakistan goes back to partition. Photo ©Copyright – Khaled Diab

Last week, I was in Barcelona attending a conference on the challenges to development posed by countries defined as “fragile” – which is the focus of the first-ever European Report on Development. The focus was sub-Saharan countries, but I was led to ponder Pakistan's chronic as I viewed the images of hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting between the army and the Taliban.

One expert at the gathering described Pakistan's as a paradox and an anomaly, given the size of the country's economy and its level of income and development. The current flare-up aside, some of the differences are more ones of perception than reality.

For instance, according to the Human Development Index – which, incidentally, was developed by two economists from India and Pakistan – these two countries are at similar levels of development (132nd and 139th respectively). For the past few years, India has been experiencing extraordinary economic growth – fuelled by its knowledge boom – but until the 1990s Pakistan performed consistently better and had a significantly higher per-capita GDP.

As for civil strife, sectarian and secessionist struggles, India has its fair share, too. For instance, in the two weeks we were in India last year, there were Islamist bombings, the killing of Christians and Muslims by Hindu mobs, and the complete shutting down of the Kashmir valley. Still, despite its significantly larger population and dizzying ethnic and religious mix, India appears, impressively, to be more stable, viable and democratic than Pakistan. Why is this? Well, one reason could be that India's very size and diversity are actually serving the country well.

Far more than Pakistan, post-independence India has needed a political culture of compromise and consensus-building based on an understanding that no one group would be able to completely dominate the others – what Brian Whitaker calls “stability through stalemate”. However, the well-worn adage of the “bigger they are, the harder they fall” could well apply in the case of India. If the wrong combination of factors emerges, the resulting chaos could make the instability in Pakistan look like a children's picnic.

India's diversity is a good incubator for scientific and intellectual excellence – at least among a certain elite – and its size means it can tap into economies of scale and markets that other developing countries can only dream of.

With Pakistan being a majority Muslim country and the Taliban on the rampage, what role has Islam played in the country's demise? In recent years, it has been popular to link Islam to underdevelopment, but the evidence does not really back this up.

“No clear conclusion emerges from the study of the impact of Islam on economic growth and development,” observes Jean-Philippe Platteau, professor of ­economics at the University of Namur in Belgium. “If anything, the effect is positive rather than negative (at least, when the sample consists only of developing countries).”

He goes on to say that the “influence of Islam seems to be much clearer on politics than on economics”, pointing to geo-political factors, interstate conflict and the resource curse to explain this democratic deficit. “[However], it is difficult to determine to what extent Islam hampers politics or politics subverts Islam.”

On Cif recently Whitaker explored how Arab leaders exploit Islam to silence dissent and legitimise their questionable authority. A similar process has been at play for much of Pakistan's history, with secular dictators such as Ayub Khan and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and democratically elected leaders such as the Bhuttos all employing religion to impose their rule or veil their corruption.

But looking at Pakistan's problems solely through the prism of religion is intellectually lazy and counterproductive. This approach fails to appreciate the uniqueness of the country's circumstances, as well as the huge amount it has in common – both positive and negative – with neighbouring India.

To properly understand Pakistan, one must go back to its birth. The country was “conceived in a hurry and delivered prematurely”, as Tariq Ali puts it. The Indian independence movement matured over decades and had the chance to build enduring democratic and civil institutions, and much of what we call India today had been a recognisable political entity, first under the Mughals and then the British.

In contrast, Pakistan had no precedent and was created almost as an afterthought by the British to reward the loyal Muslim League, which had split away from the Congress party out of fear of post-independence marginalisation or persecution.

Much more than the rest of the subcontinent, Pakistan was rocked to the core by the massive population shake-ups – with a huge influx of Muslims from all over India and an almost complete exodus of Hindus and Sikhs. However, Pakistan's apparent religious uniformity masks major ethnic and cultural tensions.

The dominance of the Punjabis and muhajirun (migrants or refugees) is resented by the native Sindhis, Pashtuns and, earlier, Bengalis, who broke away to form Bangladesh after Pakistan's bloody invasion in 1971.

So, despite Pakistan's original conception as a secular democracy, its leaders, faced with the prospect of territorial disintegration and a lack of legitimacy (particularly among non-Punjabis), fell back on the only common denominator, Islam, to try to keep the fragile country together and cement their hold on power – with disastrous consequences.

Regional geopolitics has also been a major factor in Pakistan's instability. India has never been able to forgive Pakistan for breaking away, and Pakistan has always sought to outshine India and is bitter about not being awarded Kashmir. In a parallel with cold war, the India-Pakistan standoff has been far more costly for Pakistan than India, given the disparity in the size of their economies.

In addition, the volatility in neighbouring Afghanistan – and Pakistan's role as a staunch US ally in the cold war, training mujahideen and the Taliban – has been the cause of one of the most spectacular cases of blowback in recent history: with the monster returning to consume the hand that shaped it.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 13 May 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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