The First Twenty-Five Years of Pakistan

Pakistan came into existence in 1947 after a period of uncertainty, disorder, and much violence. The decision to partition British India ignited communal riots on an unprecedented scale and with gruesome consequences in Bengal, Bihar, U.P., Punjab, and N.W.F.P. Consequently, millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims crossed the new borders. At its inception, Pakistan was without the rudiments of a government. It possessed neither a treasury nor resources; it was dependent upon the Indian government’s division of finances and stores. It had to quickly assemble a civil bureaucracy and the army from the remnants of the colonial system; it had to care for millions of refugees arriving from India; and it had to contain communal riots, particularly in Punjab. In addition, hostilities had commenced with India over Kashmir. Sceptics believed that the country would crumble and indeed it could have gone into chaos had the spirit for survival and the inspiration by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) not been there to sustain it in the critical first year. The death of the Quaid in less than 13 months after independence created many new challenges. For one thing, after his passage there was almost no one who enjoyed similar moral or political authority.

The other Muslim League leaders could not function as a team because many of them were soon embroiled in political intrigues and subversive activities. It seems that the political elite and the civil servants had kept a united front only to separate from India. After independence, they started jockeying for positions and fighting for the regional and class interests. Muslim League proved to be a party of the elite and had weak connections with the public. It started to fracture, thanks to the rivalries among the elite and its increasing distance from the ordinary public. More importantly, underneath the veneer of Islam, the country had diverse ethnicities with distinct social structure, culture, language, and economic interest. The first generation of political leaders had a double task: to build a new (multi-ethnic) nation and a new (decentralised) state. A centralised state in the face of regional disparities was a prescription for disaster in the long run. It seems that the leaders had no clear vision, so they adopted strategies and policies which exacerbated rather than resolved many structural issues of the economy and society.

It was one thing for the All-India Muslim League leaders to mobilise Muslim masses in India against the recalcitrant Hindu forces for fear of domination in an undivided India without adequate and constitutionally guaranteed protection to Muslims as a sizeable minority. Once they had acquired a separate country the task before the Muslim elite was far more difficult, for which they had not done their homework. While the Quaid had delivered the new country, he was handicapped by ill health and limited time to face a mountain of problems that needed immediate attention. But he also took some missteps. For one thing, he took upon himself two enormous tasks at the same time as Governor-General and Speaker of the Constituent Assembly. (He also continued to be the President of Muslim League until December 1947 when the party elected Chaudhry Khaliq-uz-Zaman to that position.) In addition, given the physical and cultural heterogeneity of the country, he grossly underestimated the need to establish a decentralised constitutional structure unlike the Government of India Act of 1935, which became the model in practice.

In response to the provincial governors’ complaint that the provincial political cabinets’ interference in the machinery of the government was adversely affecting the work of civil servants, the Quaid opted not for improving the Muslim League party machinery, but placed politicians under bureaucratic tutelage. It probably resolved the problem in the short term but set an example for successor governments to follow with disastrous results. Also, by discarding the provincial civil service cadre, the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) became a more centralised bureaucracy than the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was in pre-partition India. The dominance of the civil service by the Punjabi and Urdu-speaking officers and functionaries in a highly centralised bureaucracy only added to the growing grievances in East Bengal and the smaller provinces. The Quaid also ill advisedly imposed Urdu as the only national language, disregarding the place Bengali language occupied in the cultural and social life of people in East Bengal. Perhaps he was not aware of or informed about the immense social and economic diversity of the society that comprised Pakistan. But the problem was more complex as the events unfolded after the Quaid’s death. They exposed the incompetence of political leaders and their capricious greed for power.

At inception Pakistan was a predominantly agrarian society but with significant diversity. In its western part, the society was multiethnic and multilingual (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, and Baloch). People were linked horizontally through tribes, clans, castes and baradiris and vertically by landownership: on top were the khans, sardars, chaudhris, jagirdars, and waderas and below them were the ordinary cultivating zamindars, muzara, haris, non-cultivating craftsmen, labourers, and kammis. There was a thin crust of the professional, merchant, and salariat (service) class. In much of southern Punjab and Sindh, and parts of N.W.F.P. a quasi-feudal social and economic order existed. A somewhat more primitive sardari system dominated in many parts of Balochistan. There were few large-scale industries, but many small (market) towns and few cities. Punjab was the most populous province, followed by Sindh, N.W.F.P. and Balochistan. More importantly, Punjab dominated the other provinces by far in the army and the civil service in the central government.

The Punjabi-speaking Muslim refugees settled in Punjab in both the rural and urban areas, but a vast majority of the Urdu-speaking refugees settled in urban Sindh. The latter group had more than proportionate representation in the civil service and the professions. Politically, the large landowners (jagirdars and waderas) and the urban-based professionals dominated the Muslim League. There were few large-scale Muslim merchants and industrialists and most of them were refugees (mainly from Bombay and Gujarat) and Punjabis. Literacy among men was limited and almost nonexistent among women. A tiny proportion of the school-age children, especially girls, were in school. Most of the rural areas had few if any schools and their quality was inferior to those in the urban areas. There were few institutions for students to pursue post-secondary education. Pirs, sajjada nashins, ulema, and maulvis played an important role in the lives of most people.

The economy and society of the eastern part of Pakistan (East Bengal) were in many ways quite different. For one thing, the region had a larger population but was much smaller in area than the western part. East Bengal was also an agrarian society, but it was culturally far more homogeneous and economically much less differentiated than in western Pakistan. The society here was also more fluid compared to the rigid (stable) social structure in the western provinces. While its economy was more dependent on agriculture with very few if any industries, its agrarian structure was more egalitarian. In terms of representation in the central government, the western part (particularly Punjab) dominated the civil service and the army. This made a big difference because the provinces had little power and the civil bureaucracy, in which the Bengalis had limited representation, dominated the central government. It is also a fact that the leadership of Muslim League in East Bengal started to fracture between the vernacular and non-vernacular elite; the latter group closely allied with the central elite in the Muslim League. The vernacular elite in Bengal started to express their sense of frustration, along with repeated signals on the sensitive issue of language, against a system of centralised government in which they enjoyed little power.

There were two other important contributors to the rising tide of resentment in East Bengal. One was constitutional and the other economic. The Lahore Resolution of 1940 had left the door open for two independent (sovereign) Muslim states. But in 1946 the Muslim League Legislators’ Convention unanimously adopted a resolution for one Muslim state after it was known that Bengal would be partitioned. The Bengali elite expected that the state of Pakistan would be a federation in which most of the power would reside with the provincial and not federal government. After Pakistan came into existence, the first Constituent Assembly dragged on its work until it was abolished in 1954 before it could produce a constitution. Meanwhile the political elite ran the country as a centralised state under the Government of India Act of 1935: Governor-General, assisted by the provincial governors and the civil bureaucracy (the CSP class) held the reins of power. The inability or unwillingness of the political leaders to craft a constitution for Pakistan as a decentralised federation was a fatal mistake.

The economic factor had two parts. For one thing, East Bengal was a relatively less developed area than Punjab or Sindh. Like Balochistan and N.W.F.P., it needed more attention and public resources for development. Initially the governments did not regard economic development as a priority because it lacked resources and its agenda was full of other immediate issues. Its strategy for development was based on two pillars: active involvement of the state and subsidised industrialisation. Translated into practice, it meant the flow of resources from the raw material-producing sector (agriculture) into manufacturing. East Bengal was the major earner of foreign exchange through jute exports, but the central government channelled a large portion of the foreign earnings for industrial imports mostly into western Pakistan. Private entrepreneurs, most of them from Punjab and Sindh (Karachi), were given massive incentives in the form of cheap credit, overvalued exchange rate, and distorted export and import duties, to establish manufacturing plants, factories, etc. East Bengal received a miniscule part of the private and public investment for industrial development. In addition, a large part of the central government’s expenditure was on the civil and military services in which Bengal’s representation was quite limited. The issue of widening economic disparity between the eastern and western parts of the country became a major Bengali grievance.

Pakistan’s constitutional development was thwarted first by the failure of the Muslim League leaders to agree on the basic principles and then it was subverted by the rising power of some in the civil and military services who became the major actors in national politics. After the Quaid died in 1948, Muslim League began to fracture in Punjab, East Bengal, and Sindh because of the tussle for power among the contesting elites. Since Liaquat Ali Khan (1895–1951) as Prime Minister and Khwaja Nazimuddin (1894–1964) as Governor-General were without strong constituencies, they were unable to control the drift. Maybe the two were themselves part of the problem. After Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951, Nazimuddin took over as Prime Minister and handed the reins of power to Ghulam Muhammad (1895–1956), a man not constrained by scruples, as Governor-General. In his short tenure, Khwaja Nazimuddin was confronted by serious problems: language riots in East Bengal, anti-Qadiani agitation in Punjab, student riots in Karachi, and food (grain) shortages in the country. Except for the language problem, in which he was himself a culprit, Nazimuddin was a victim of betrayal by his colleagues. In any case, using his vice-regal powers, in 1953 Ghulam Muhammad dismissed Nazimuddin and replaced him by Muhammad Ali Bogra (1909–1963), a Bengali political non-entity. The Governor-General did not stop there: he then dissolved the first Constituent Assembly, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court, and declared a state of emergency in 1954.

The field was now open for adventurers at the centre, the likes of Ghulam Muhammad, Iskandar Mirza (1898–1969), Chaudhry Muhammad Ali (1905–1980), General Muhammad Ayub Khan (1907–1974), Mian Mumtaz Daultana (1916–1995), and Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani (1905–1981) to further undermine the representative structure of the country. Muslim League went into obscurity in East Bengal after its massive defeat in 1954 at the hands of the United Front, a new coalition of parties representing Bengali aspirations. But the strong centre managed to change the provincial government by political manipulation of the Bengali political elite, particularly H.S. Suhrawardy (1892–1963), A.K. Fazlul Haq (1873–1962), and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani (1880–1976), and by strong-arm tactics under the available legal powers. Likewise, in the western part, Muslim League was on a downward spiral. In addition, men like Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and Mian Mumtaz Daultana hatched a plan for the merger of provinces and princely states into “One Unit” or West Pakistan. The purpose was to limit Bengal’s ability to form anti-Punjab coalitions and give the new province of West Pakistan parity of representation with East Bengal.

Despite substantial opposition in the smaller provinces, the political schemers were able to impose the province of West Pakistan in the fall of 1954. The One Unit document prepared by Daultana suggested the use of skilful propaganda, but the civil and military bureaucrats were in a hurry: they went about using arbitrary methods to dismiss the governments in Sindh, N.W.F.P. and Punjab. Ghulam Muhammad issued an Ordinance in the early spring of 1955, amending the Government of India Act 1935, to establish the province of West Pakistan and provide a constitution to the country. The Supreme Court, however, made it clear that the constitution could only be made by a Constituent Assembly and it must also validate the new province of West Pakistan. The new Constituent Assembly had only two Muslim Leaguers from East Bengal and all others were from West Pakistan. In the summer of 1955, Ghulam Muhammad appointed Chaudhry Muhammad Ali as Prime Minister in place of Muhammad Ali Bogra and, on account of ill health, he was himself replaced by Iskandar Mirza as Governor-General. The two appointees were civil servants, clearly indicating the weakened state of politicians due to the deep divisions in their ranks.

The internecine feuding among politicians from both East and West Pakistan crippled the political process: it allowed Iskandar Mirza to create a new political party, Republican Party, to counteract and disrupt the Muslim League in West Pakistan. In East Bengal, despite their massive victory in the 1954 provincial election in favour of maximum regional autonomy, the Bengali politicians also displayed division and disharmony. However, most of them accepted the parity principle (in all spheres) on three conditions: (i) Bengali as the second national language, (ii) joint electorate, and (iii) regional autonomy for East Bengal. It was on these principles that the second Constituent Assembly gave Pakistan its first constitution in early 1956, nine years after independence. But the political schemers managed to subvert the plan for holding the first national elections — they were expected in early 1957 and then in early 1958 — and hatched a counterplan to overthrow the civilian rule in Pakistan.

Needless to add, the country remained unstable from 1954 to 1958: there were five governments at the centre and three in East Pakistan, including governor’s rule for two years. There were three Prime Ministers in two years after Chaudhry Muhammad Ali: H.S. Suhrawardy, I.I. Chundrigar (1897–1960) and Feroze Khan Noon (1893–1970). President Iskandar Mirza used the loopholes in the constitution and exposed and discredited almost all political leaders in the public eye. He could not have accomplished all this without the tacit support of the army officers led by General Mohammad Ayub Khan. In September 1958, the legislative process in the provincial assembly of East Pakistan broke down completely. Its members fought each other violently — the Deputy Speaker was killed in the brawl — while the province was in the grip of acute food shortages, floods, and epidemics. The military brass used this incidence as their main pretext for staging the coup on October 8, 1958. Initially they used Iskandar Mirza as a screen but then removed him from the stage in less than three weeks.

In the first eleven years of Pakistan, the leading players spent a considerable part of the time in political gamesmanship to stay in power. A major part of the central government’s budget was spent on the armed forces and the rest on maintaining law and order, leaving meagre resources for public services. Public investment went mostly into building and improving the irrigation system, roads, and railways. Education and health care services did not receive government’s attention while the demand for them kept rising. It seems that building human capital was not considered a worthwhile investment, despite public pronouncements to the contrary. The failure of successive governments was even more glaring on the most important social and economic issue in the agrarian society of West Pakistan. There was high concentration of landownership in the hands of a few thousand powerful zamindars and jagirdars while millions of the sharecropping tenants had few if any rights. The owners of large landholdings dominated the assemblies, thanks to their vote-banks and unholy alliances. While successive governments paid much lip service to the issue of land reforms in West Pakistan to transform the society, they achieved almost nothing except for some changes in the rights of tenants in the early 1950s. In practice, however, the new tenancy acts were not effectively enforced. The grossly distorted agrarian structure of West Pakistan was a major and tenacious obstacle to economic and social progress. (In East Bengal, on the other hand, the jagirdari system was abolished in 1951 with good effects on society.)

The failure of politicians to purge the schemers and control the bureaucracy, because of the constitutional structure to which Pakistan remained fettered, and their inability to represent the public interest gave the army generals the opportunity to usurp power. They were probably waiting in the wings for some time to step in. The 1958 coup was as much a culmination of the political follies as it was the beginning of the breakup of the country. The army’s intervention halted the political process, however flawed it may have been, and set a precedence for other men on horse back to repeat the act in the future. The army not only co-opted the civil bureaucracy but also attracted political opportunists and then fostered the growth of new political supporters. In East Pakistan, it set in motion a separatist movement which could have been avoided had the political process of give-and-take been allowed to continue under the 1956 constitution. More importantly, the army generals and their henchmen adopted policies and took actions that gradually but surely disaffected increasing number of Bengalis and alienated them from Pakistan.

After the coup, General Ayub Khan and his cohorts had no plans to transfer power to the civilians any time soon: they settled in the saddle for a long haul. Their initial strategy was to sideline the politicians and deactivate political parties. They imposed the so-called Basic Democracy system on the country within months for at least two reasons: (i) to emphasise the point that the parliamentary system was not suitable for the people of Pakistan — they needed a guided political system; and (ii) to foster a new cadre of supporters while depoliticising the country. The second strategy was to put economic development on top of the agenda: pursue planned economic growth, leaving sufficient room for private enterprise under the state’s patronage. Economic well-being was considered a far better glue than religion or culture for national unity.

To achieve these aims, the military rulers brought into partnership about four hundred CSP officers who controlled the sinews of Pakistan’s government. The constitution of 1962, adopted after about forty-four months of Martial Law, clearly reflected the intentions of the rulers to maintain a centralised structure of power and administration. These policies and related actions laid the foundation for further alienation of Bengalis along with the demand for restoration of provinces in West Pakistan. The rising economic inequalities accompanying the experience of somewhat impressive overall economic growth added fuel to the fire. Political repression and muzzling of dissent were indicators of how far the regime had gone wrong. (When I left Pakistan in the fall of 1961 there were few palpable signs of disenchantment. Probably most people, at least in West Pakistan, were still in a state of euphoria, but that did not last for too long.)

General Ayub Khan, supported by the army and civil servants, maintained a strong-fisted attitude to deal with the opposition right from the beginning. Eventually three events galvanised the opposition not only in East Pakistan — where the regime was unpopular from the beginning — but also in West Pakistan: the rigged Presidential election of 1964 — Miss Fatima Jinnah (1893–1967), sister of the Quaid, was the opposition’s candidate; the brief and inconclusive war with India in 1965; and the Tashkent Declaration of 1966. In the next two years, Ayub Khan raised the level of repression, as the opposition, especially in East Pakistan, grew more confident and combative. Bengalis, and some politicians from Sindh and N.W.F.P., demanded with increasing vehemence regional autonomy to weaken the centralised power and reduce economic disparities. In 1968, mass protests in East and West Pakistan — they were led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, retired Air Marshal Muhammad Asghar Khan (1921–2018), and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979) — confronted the beleaguered regime, while Ayub Khan and his cronies were celebrating the “Decade of Development”. Consequently, Ayub Khan transferred the reins of power to General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan (1917–1980) in March of `1969 after the former’s colleagues in the army persuaded (or forced) him to exit gracefully. Which he did.

General Yahya Khan restored the former provinces in western Pakistan and held the first general election in December of 1970. However, the election, which by consensus was relatively free and fair, proved to be the last chapter in the story of united Pakistan. The outcome of the election — not anticipated by those in power — created an untenable and polarised situation in the country. The military leaders and some of the leading politicians in West Pakistan, especially Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were unwilling to share power with the leaders of the majority party (Awami League) from East Pakistan. They decided to use force against the Bengali leaders and their supporters in March 1971. The military action led to a brutal and bloody civil war. Eventually, the Indian army’s intervention on behalf of the Bengali resistance brought about the surrender of the Pakistan army and created Bangladesh as an independent state on December 17. Nurul Amin (1892–1974), a Bengali politician, was the last Prime Minister of Pakistan for 13 days in that month!

(I do not subscribe to the view that Pakistan’s breakup was inevitable. It happened because of many avoidable blunders committed by men dedicated to protecting their personal and parochial interests above all else. Almost no one, except the victims, was blameless for the tragic end. Soon after the breakup of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over the charge as the first civilian Martial Law Administrator and President of the truncated state. Nurul Amin was his Vice President for just over one year.)

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada