Converging to the core

August 7, 2022

For the Centre to Far Right, broadly speaking, Islam itself or Muslim nationalism remain an integral part of the Pakistan project from day one

Converging to the core


he story of Islamisation in Pakistan varies depending on who is telling it. For the Liberal-Left, more often than not, it begins with Gen Zia’s military-led government and its imposition of religious penal laws and moral policing policies. In this narrative, the founding fathers, particularly Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, are presented as modernists par excellence and as followers of political secularism (separation of state and religion). Sure, there was Syed Abul A’ala Maududi, but he remained mostly a marginal figure, we are told, to become a nuisance only with the top-down Islamisation under Gen Zia.

For the Centre to Far Right, broadly speaking, Islam itself or Muslim nationalism remain an integral part of the Pakistan project from day one. In these narratives, the story of British colonisation of India and the communalisation of anti-colonial nationalisms is reduced to specific sets of grand events and personal biographies in which Islamic state or Muslim nationalism emerge as the telos of Pakistani history.

How might the story be re-told if instead of ascribing teleology to it, the emergence of Muslim nationalism in colonial India and the establishment of Pakistan as a separate state for Indian Muslims are seen as contingent outcomes of political conflicts between actors whose identities were subject to constant change?

Taking account of contingency will alert us to other political possibilities, which could have unfolded but didn’t, and which continue to remain with us, even if on the margins of the polity. However, as the practitioners of the Marxist tradition of historical materialism show us, contingency alone doesn’t suffice when looking back into the historical past to ascertain how and why we have reached at the specific present. The transformational impact of particular historical conjunctures needs to be taken into account, too. Put simply, the contingent outcome of political conflicts leads to a new set of conditions under which future conflicts take place.

Take these two cases, for example: (i) the unprecedented consolidation of communal populism in the colonial Punjab province in the last decade before Partition, and (ii) the Zia regime’s imposition of Islamic penal laws and its active collusion with the United States and Islamists within the country for the Afghan war. The former was a result of drawing room negotiations and deals between Muslim League and Unionist leadership where the primary concern was purely secular and with base-level political-economic interests of the Punjabi aristocracy insofar as it was about the position of Punjabi politics and economy in the emergent federal framework of government in India, on the one hand, and the identification of a specific group of revivalist Sunni ulema and mashaikh with the League’s increasingly populist platform in the face of the emergent Hindu revivalism, on the other.

When these contingencies led to the Cabinet Mission talks and the eventual partition plan and its associated communal violence, they fundamentally altered the social terrain from which politics unfolded in the post-colonial state of Pakistan. Muslim nationalism became an affective resource, binding disparate set of social groups and classes into an imagined community (with all of its social hierarchies intact) kept together through the coercive as well as consensual institutions of the nation-state (civil-military bureaucracy and establishment political parties at least until the late 1960s).

Converging to the core

With the transformational impact of the Partition conjuncture taken into account, the Zia regime emerges, neither as an anomaly (as in some Liberal-Left narratives) nor as the re-incarnation of the original Islamic telos lost in the interregnum.

There must be other columns and essays in this edition, better suited to tell the story of the 1960s and the 1970s. However, from our vantage point, what is important is to reckon that no story of the ’60s and ’70s and thereafter will be complete without acknowledging the transformational impact of the partition in 1947. That said, with the transformational impact of the partition conjuncture taken into account, the Zia regime emerges, neither as an anomaly (as in some Liberal-Left narratives) nor as the re-incarnation of the original Islamic telos lost in the interregnum.

Instead, it emerges better as the contingent outcome of conflicts involving (i) the populism of ZA Bhutto, on the one hand, and the beleaguered political opposition on the Right as well as the Left, on the other, (ii) the consolidation of the Punjabi-Mohajir dominant strand of Muslim nationalism in the post-Bangladesh and the post-Islamic constitution contexts, and (iii) state repression on organic struggles of the peasants, students, industrial workers and ethno-nationalist forces that eroded the social base for a possible political project that may have served as the alternative to the dominant strand of Muslim nationalism, and (iv) finally, the agro-industrial and commercial capitalists whose economic interests were targetted in the nationalisation programme and whose control over urban markets provided them with a salient position in the contentious political episodes including strikes, demonstrations and rallies as part of the Nizam-i-Mustafa movement.

Fast forward to today: another populist politician with pan-Islamic ambitions and authoritarian tendencies inspired from East Asian models of developmental state nationalisms faces a political opposition including the Centre- and Religious Right as well as the Liberal civil society and voices from the nascent Left revival. How did we reach from Zia via Jinnah, Iqbal and Bhutto to Imran?

Partly, we reached here as part of the intra-elite conflict involving the Charter of Democracy (CoD) and the 18th Amendment and their corresponding issue of civil-military relations and the federalist framework under which Islamabad relates to provinces. If the CoD and the 18th Amendment represented outcomes of the minimally agreed upon rules of the game among major political parties, they also mark imposition of major political costs on the interests of a key Centrist force – the security establishment. The hybrid regime of 2018-2022 could, thus, be seen as the convergence of Imran’s populism and the military’s instrumental interests. Besides these intra-elite intrigues, the religious populism of our political present personified by Imran Khan and his PTI is owed also to the post-Zia social changes. In its current conjuncture, religious populism symbolises masculinist frustrations and aspirations of the post-Zia professional urban upper-middle classes in particular.

A product of socio-economic privilege, for the most part, these classes have found in Imran Khan the perfect incarnation of their primary contradiction: between their privileged position at home in Pakistan as opposed to the country’s subordinate position in the global hierarchy. The responsibility for this lack is apportioned often to the corrupt [non-PTI] political elites but also to lazy and thankless awam when they don’t vote for the PTI. Thus, as with populism of all kinds, Imran’s political project has cultivated a collective of insiders – true patriots and nationalists – against outsiders including most saliently ‘corrupt [non-PTI] politicians’ but also political dissidents of all stripes whose legitimacy is not accepted and whose grievances are conflated with foreign conspiracies.

From the communal populism of the decade leading to the partition and the Left populism of Bhutto to the populism of Imran Khan, religion has been a constant factor, while its particular forms and the underlying social bases have varied. However, in all these instances, populists and their projects have sat uncomfortably with instrumentalist interests within state institutions and the civil society (capitalist classes of various stripes) on whose reliance they rise to popularity in the first place.

The populism of Partition years died at the altar of post-partition elite politics of the ’50s. Bhutto’s populism was dislodged from power and eventually became institutionalised in the form of Peoples Party politics. In its post-hybrid phase, Imran’s populism is fighting its battle for survival.

The writer is a sociology PhD student at University of Illinois,   Urbana-Champaign

Converging to the core