"Military takeover is unlikely but army will remain the final arbiter anyway"

April 6, 2014

I meet Ayesha Jalal on an early-spring morning at her residence in Lahore, just a few days after the conclusion of the Lahore Literary Festival. Located in the Cantt area of Lahore, opposite the Polo Ground, on a street pleasantly lined with quite a few trees, her house has the old storybook charm about it.

My mind is brewing with questions as I enter the dining-cum-living room. Ever since I read The Pity of Partition, her latest work on Saadat Hasan Manto, I have had this overwhelming desire to meet with the author Jalal. I was keen on having an interesting discussion with her about Manto’s writings, the partition of India, Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan and Pakistan’s current political situation.

Having graciously agreed for the interview, Ayesha Jalal settles down on an off-white settee, holding a bowl of fruit salad. Wearing a simple white kurta with blue jeans, she speaks to me with remarkable fluency and enthusiasm, as if she has already thought deep about these questions. There is an intimidating aura about her that melts into warmth and generosity as we begin the conversation.

"I grew up in a household where Manto had a larger-than-life presence. I have always felt I knew him but I never actually had the chance of meeting him. I was born after he died. I call him Manto Abba Jan just as his daughters would say," says Ayesha Jalal, the grand-niece of Manto.

A leading historian and the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University, she "draws on Manto’s stories, sketches, and essays as well as a trove of his private letters to present an intimate history of partition" in The Pity of Partition. The book has been called "the first in-depth look in English on Manto which demonstrates the revelatory power of art in times of great historical rupture".

Ayesha Jalal does not agree with the contention that Manto’s popularity was solely because of his stories about sex and prostitutes. "It wasn’t just that he wrote about sex and prostitution; in fact he has written about humanity just as it existed. He was a realist and the kind of realism he depicted was what people could really relate to. Compared to the earlier trends that were romantic or fantastical, his characters were real life figures as he used to say and as I have written in The Pity of Partition. He would say that none of his characters was imaginary. He could write a story about any real life character, of course with a certain element of fictionalisation."

"Jinnah was trying to negotiate power sharing arrangement which could have protected the interests of Muslims not only in Pakistan but also in India. Partition actually prevented that from happening so it hurt the interests of Muslims."

When it comes to consciousness of style and frugality of language, Jalal thinks Manto was a master. "All his stories would delight the readers with a certain Maupassant-like element of surprise which was undoubtedly more successful in some stories than others."

She feels sad that Manto had to struggle a lot in his life but she thinks that the young writers, theatre groups and an enormous following have still kept him alive. "The immense recognition that he has got despite the absence of state sponsorship on both sides of the border is I think what he would have liked it to be like."

Manto, she agrees, was a rebel writer. "People say he just wanted to shock but it was for a certain purpose. He wanted the people to question the accepted assumptions about society without any sense of moralising in his writings. He leaves it open to the judgment of the readers." She says Manto is her personal favourite writer from the subcontinent. However she has enjoyed reading Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Intizar Husain.

"I have also been influenced by writings of Orhan Pamuk, Naguib Mahfouz and Salman Rushdie."

Jalal believes there is a close connection between literature and history. "I have used literature as a historical source in my works, particularly in Self and Sovereignty. Also while teaching my general lecture course on South Asian history, I often use literary references."

In her first book The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan, which also happened to be her PhD thesis, Jalal examines what happened in the years between the 1937 elections and the partition, identifying the factors which led to the creation of Pakistan and provides new insights into the nature of the British transfer of power in India. Who does she think was responsible for the partition of India? Was the creation of Pakistan solely Jinnah’s demand or was the Indian National Congress indirectly favouring it?

"The demand for Pakistan was articulated by the All India Muslim League but what exactly is the demand for Pakistan? What was the significance of the fourteen points at the time they were articulated? First of all, it was based on Jinnah trying to bring together the interest of Muslims in both the majority and minority provinces. Also he was moving away from just the question of minority rights safeguard to demanding Muslim dominated provinces. That wasn’t something that Congress wanted to concede. If you look at the Nehru Report of 1928, you will find that Congress was actually opposing the creation of Sindh." Jinnah realised that by consolidating Muslim power in certain states Muslims would be able to enjoy more power than simply living on the basis of minority safeguards, therefore, he was moving to territorial dominance, she says.

"Although talking against partition leads to sloganeering in Pakistan but the fact is that partition has actually split the Muslims."

She doesn’t think the partition of India suited the interests of the Muslims as well as it should have. "Although talking against partition leads to sloganeering in Pakistan but the fact is that partition has actually split the Muslims. Jinnah was trying to negotiate power sharing arrangement which could have protected the interests of Muslims not only in Pakistan but also in India. Partition actually prevented that from happening so it hurt the interests of Muslims. Not only did it do that, it ended up partitioning the two main Muslim dominated provinces of Punjab and Bengal."

What would have happened in case the partition never happened? "Punjab and Bengal would have dominated India. What dominates India -- Uttar Pradesh. And who belonged to Uttar Pradesh -- Jawaharlal Nehru! So, you can well analyse the objective behind partition."

She argues the real partition of India was the partition of two provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Partition weakened the Muslim-dominated states where they had an advantage. "That doesn’t mean that the creation of Pakistan was inherently a bad idea. But the question that has confused Pakistanis, and they stand firm on remaining confused, is their claim that they wanted the Pakistan which emerged in 1947. Yes, there was a demand for a separate state but it didn’t deliver even half of what was desired."

Jalal explains that Jinnah wanted to use the demand for Pakistan to negotiate on behalf of all Muslims. Finally, Jinnah accepted a Pakistan based on the partition of Punjab and Bengal, which he himself had rejected twice before in 1944 and 1946. How could anyone logically justify this, she asks.

If Jinnah wanted a separate state for Muslims, why did he want to go to India and live in his house in Mumbai as written by the first Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sri Prakasa, I ask. "Pakistan was a means for Jinnah to negotiate an equitable share of power for Muslims in India. It didn’t mean having impermeable borders. Nobody quite envisaged how difficult things would become. The bloodshed of partition made it impossible for any kind of constant movement and made the borders permanent rather than permeable," she says.

Why did the Communist Party of India (CPI) support the demand for Pakistan? "That’s a really good question. Once the Soviet Union joined the war [WWII] against Germany, what they had earlier dismissed as an imperialist war became a people’s war. So, when it became a people’s war, they were taking cues from the Soviet Union. On the basis of Lenin’s commitment to self-determination and right of nationalities, the CPI supported the demand for Pakistan. That was consistent with Stalin’s position and with the official Soviet position. But that also resulted in a scenario where the Communist Party lost a lot of support and was never able to recover from that, particularly because they began to support the war effort once the Soviet Union joined the war."

She thinks the idea of Pakistan being a failed state is problematic and takes away from the real discussion which is that "we need to improve our delivery system. I don’t understand what the term means. Failed by whose standards -- by American or by British standards? I think it is an arbitrary construct; there is no denying the fact that there are enormous problems of governance and there has been inadequate delivery by the state across the board".

She says that, interestingly, typically when such a situation arises, in failed states in say Africa, people begin looking towards other groups to provide protection. "Now you may argue that in FATA this is exactly what has happened and people have sought protection under the Taliban because they have had no other choice. However, the difference is that the state has actually withdrawn its already presence from FATA. The people in Pakistan, despite it being a so called failed state, want the government to deliver. Whether it’s after the floods in Sindh or the result of the 2013 elections, we see people raising expectations of the same government and express a desire for the state to start delivering," she elaborates.

We move to the issue of Balochistan and she says the Baloch have lost the faith in the state and there is a sense of alienation in the province. Does she see a similarity of the situation in Balochistan with that of East Pakistan? "There is no military solution to Balochistan but a political one. Hopefully, there won’t be a situation like 1971 because of course there is a geographical distinction -- Balochistan is the adjoining part of the country and makes 40 per cent of Pakistan. So to give this up is not easy."

Does she think there’s chance of another military take-over? "There is always a chance in a country that has had so many. With all the disappointments of democratic governments, not only between 1988 and 1999 and more recently between 2008 and 2013, some very solid advances have been made which make it more unlikely that Pakistan army can easily take over. But it will remain the final arbiter anyway," she says.

The question for her is whether it suits the Pakistan army to be the final arbiter or be directly involved in a highly violent and polarised context. "So I do think that with the strengthening of other institutions, notably the activism of the judiciary and the press which might be compromised but is vigilant, there is only a remote possibility of a military takeover."

Moreover, Ayesha Jalal stresses that Pakistan is not Egypt where the army can rule for more than thirty years. The democratic desire is much stronger in Pakistan, she says. "It is up to the politicians to ensure that the political process continues and they are beginning to show that through some important milestones -- the 18th amendment and the NFC Award. Although the army takeover is unlikely, we can never rule it out completely."

Jalal thinks Pakistan’s major problem is the civil-military relationship. "This imbalance in civil-military relations created a lot of uncertainty in the country and has aggravated the centre-region relations including Balochistan. In order to change this, the mindset of the politicians and some policies needs to be reconsidered. There is no such thing as a definitive national security paradigm; it has to change with circumstances."

In Pakistan’s case, because of the dominance of military after 1958, the debate about national security interest has never been open to general public. "Even today it is defined by the military while it should be ascertained through a democratic process."

Does she see Pakistan developing as a secular liberal state in future? "It’s very hard to predict. Historians are not so prone to crystal-gazing but yes it is always possible. It doesn’t have to be a liberal state in the western sense but certainly a more open, enlightened, less violent state that is more accommodating of difference. All that is possible but it would require strengthening of democratic processes and its uninterrupted continuation," she concludes.

"Military takeover is unlikely but army will remain the final arbiter anyway"