The Specter of Partition Looms on Pakistan's 70th Anniversary

12 MINS READAug 13, 2017 | 13:52 GMT
As Pakistan celebrates the seventieth anniversary of its independence, the specter of the 1947 partition that split India and Pakistan still looms.

As Pakistan celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, the specter of the 1947 partition that split India and Pakistan still looms.

Pakistan has been in a tug of war between elected and unelected institutions since its inception. Contentious relations between Muslims and Hindus formed the cracked foundation on which the country was established, and a powerful military that regularly wrested control from political leaders has kept it unstable. Now, as Pakistan celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, the specter of the 1947 partition that split India and Pakistan still looms, embodied in the clashing priorities of contemporary figures shaped by decades old circumstances.

New Rivalries With Old History

On July 28, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif failed to report his income while chairman of a Dubai-based firm set up by his son in 2006. He was subsequently removed from office. The verdict marked the climax of a 60-day investigation (triggered by the 2016 Panama Papers) into the finances of Sharif's family, which unleashed a political firestorm in Islamabad.

When the court ruled that Sharif had breached the code of honesty invested in the office of prime minister, it was a moment of triumph for opposition leader Imran Khan, who petitioned the corruption case. But Khan wasn't the only person rejoicing. Pervez Musharraf, the retired general who toppled Sharif in a coup in 1999, released a video congratulating the country's judiciary for the verdict. Musharraf ruled Pakistan until 2008, and he is currently in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates facing charges of treason, which carry the death penalty, for suspending the constitution in 2007. Those charges were brought forth by Sharif.

Pervez Musharraf, the retired general who toppled Sharif in a coup in 1999, released a video congratulating the country's judiciary for the verdict that ousted Sharif.

Sharif's ouster and Musharraf's taunt are emblematic of the near-constant antagonism between the country's prime ministers and its army, which has led to four periods of military rule. (Though as the Supreme Court's decision demonstrated, the judiciary is another powerful force). But any serious attempt to cut to the depths of Sharif's — and Pakistan's — current predicament requires a broader perspective. It demands starting at the beginning, when a 19th-century movement formed by India's Muslims finally achieved fruition at the dawn of the Cold War.

A Foundation Beset By Cracks

By the mid-1800s, the Muslim Mughal Empire that once spanned the subcontinent had fallen, and the colonial empire of the British Raj began in 1858. In the near-century that followed, independence movements started cropping up throughout India, as Muslims and Hindus alike were eager to rid their land of its British presence. But though they agreed on that point, opinions diverged about what came after. Under the Crown's rule, India's government began slowly moving in a more democratic direction, and educated, influential Hindus were advancing within the colonial bureaucracy. This new political status, combined with a Hindu revivalist movement and the fact that there were more Hindus than Muslims, sparked worry among Muslim elites. They feared that in any future democratic India, Muslims would become a permanent minority.

An intellectual Muslim community thus coalesced in the 19th century, led by Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875. Khan's college was meant to speed up the societal progression of Muslims through education, and it eventually spawned the 1906 formation of the All-India Muslim League, a political party that quickly became popular with North Indian Muslim elites.

Then, in 1930, came the Two-Nation Theory, created by All-India Muslim League member Muhammad Allama Iqbal. The theory centered on the idea that Hindus and Muslims constituted separate nations and therefore deserved separate states (though not necessarily separate countries). It would become the guiding force that ultimately spawned the name and idea of "Pakistan," a play on words meaning "The Land of the Pure" but also working as an acronym for the regions of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan. Muslim elites in the 1930s quickly grasped onto the idea of Pakistan, trumpeting it as a solution for the subcontinent.

A New Leader For A New State

The face of the movement to establish Pakistan was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a constitutional lawyer and contemporary of Allama Iqbal. Jinnah took the philosopher's ideas and translated them into action, driven by a historical movement rooted in religious minority dynamics, self-determination and Islamic revivalism. Amid an ever-growing movement demanding Indian independence from the Crown, he sought to create a state out of the Muslim-majority northeastern and northwestern wings of British India. He imagined that this state would co-exist alongside the Hindu majority provinces (aka "Hindustan") all within the framework of a post-colonial Indian confederation. Support for Jinnah's Pakistan was strong among North Indian Muslims who were minorities in their regions, and less popular in the Muslim-majority wings such as Bengal and Punjab. But Jinnah eventually won broad support, in part with his emphasis on Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru's intention to reduce provincial autonomy.

Meanwhile, the debate over how to divide up India's Muslim and Hindu populations was taking place against the backdrop of Britain's shifting priorities. World War II had exacted a heavy toll on the British. And at the same time that Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India movement reached a fever pitch, London concluded that the financial and moral costs of maintaining the Raj had outweighed the benefits. So, on June 3, 1947, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, signed the plan to partition British India in August of that year.

Jinnah took the philosopher's ideas for Pakistan and translated them into action, driven by a historical movement rooted in religious minority dynamics, self-determination and Islamic revivalism.

Negotiating the details of the partition was a fraught endeavor. Jinnah wanted all Muslim-majority regions to become Pakistan, though he recognized the reality that many Muslims would remain in India. So he aimed to use non-Muslim minority populations in Punjab and Bengal as leverage to gain protections for Muslim minorities in Hindu-majority provinces. But this method failed, as non-Muslims living in Muslim majority provinces objected to the prospect of winding up in the same permanent subordination status that motivated their Muslim minority counterparts to seek refuge in Pakistan.

In the end, the partition left Jinnah with a Pakistan made of two parts: West Pakistan, located between Afghanistan and India, and East Pakistan, swallowed almost entirely by northeast India (in addition to sharing a small border with Myanmar). Nearly 40 percent of the region's Muslims ended up in the newly created Dominion of India, and Punjab and Bengal were split. Though Jinnah, who would subsequently become the governor general of Pakistan, begrudgingly accepted the compromise, he famously decried that it had resulted in a "maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten Pakistan." The bitter struggle leading up to the birth of Pakistan has left a legacy as divided as the subcontinent itself.

An Unsteady Start

The stroke of Mountbatten's pen triggered the migration of some 15 million people and unleashed a bloodbath. As Hindus and Muslims (and Sikhs) trekked across new boundaries toward new lives, any prospect of a peaceful transfer of populations was destroyed, and in the months following the partition, at least half a million people were killed. Furthermore, for Pakistan, the consequences of the partition would extend far beyond just a tragic loss of life.

Almost immediately after independence, hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan over the state of Kashmir, which was led by Hindu ruler Hari Singh. The conflict set the tone for 70 years of political and military friction. Pakistan claimed Kashmir on the basis of its majority Muslim population — likely also prioritizing Pakistan's main river, the Indus, which flowed through the state. India, however, argued that Kashmir belonged with it, since India was based on a secular nationalism accepting of all faiths.

Recognizing the futility of direct military action against its more militarily powerful neighbor, Pakistan decided to stake its claim by recruiting tribesman from its North-West Frontier Province (today called the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, near Afghanistan) to aid a domestic rebellion in Kashmir's Poonch district on October 22, 1947. Singh looked to India for military reinforcements against the Pakistani attack, and the battle that followed marked the first of three wars between the neighbors (and one 1999 so-called "mini-war" in the Kargil district of Kashmir).

The perceived Indian threat compelled Jinnah to empower the one institution who could become capable of handling it: the army. As head of an unelected viceregal system of governance, Jinnah wielded his sweeping powers to advance the imperative of securing a unified Pakistan, which meant developing a national security presence capable of standing up to India. Prioritizing defense over democratization meant that Pakistan's growth during its political adolescence was stunted by a civil-military imbalance. It also happened to occur during the Cold War, when Washington sought an anti-communist ally in Islamabad and granted Pakistan a substantial aid package. The money from the United States subsidized the Pakistani military and ensured its strength, shaping Pakistan's identity.

An Army With a Country

Prioritizing military might over civilian rights, Pakistan abandoned its first constitution in 1958, only two years after it was ratified. At that time, President Iskander Mirza imposed martial law, then ceded power to his commander in chief, Gen. Ayub Khan. This sparked 11 years of military rule, first under Ayub Khan and then under his successor, the unrelated Gen. Yahya Khan. Military dominance led to a major imbalance between Pakistan's center and its various regions, resulting in a 1970 political victory by East Pakistan-based party the Awami League and a subsequent military crackdown by West Pakistan. A civil war and Indian intervention followed the crackdown, and Pakistan was vivisected, with its eastern wing gaining independence as Bangladesh in 1971.

In the wake of Bangladesh's independence, Pakistan's political pendulum swung toward civilian rule under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but after he was accused of rigging the 1977 elections, Bhutto's army chief, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, toppled him in a coup. Over the next decade, Zia-ul-Haq's firm rule would have profound consequences. Threatened by Afghanistan's periodic demand for a state of Pashtunistan, the leader instituted an Islamization campaign in Pakistan, meant to paper over the country's ethnic divisions by forging unity through religion. With a boost from the United States, Pakistan trained, armed and funded mujahideen to defeat the Soviets in the Cold War's final proxy war in Afghanistan.

Zia-ul-Haq's death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 ushered in a fragile era of democracy for Pakistan, which saw the country's two leading politicians, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, serving alternating terms cut short by allegations of corruption or military intervention. But during Sharif's second term in 1999, he fired his army chief, Pervez Musharraf, who then took over in a coup on Oct. 12, 1999. Musharraf's tenure coincided with the launch of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in October 2001, which meant Pakistan had to circumscribe its support for the Taliban if it wished to remain a U.S. ally. Musharraf's rule was punctuated by moments of crisis, such as the suspension of the Pakistani constitution that led to his exile. But he also came close to reaching an agreement on the ever-contentious Kashmir issue, though the initiative eventually failed and Kashmir is still a highly unstable region.

In 1958, President Iskandar Mirza imposed martial law, then ceded power to his commander in chief, Gen. Ayub Khan.

Power returned to civilians following Musharraf's resignation in the wake of his treason charges. Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari won the 2008 election, and his Pakistan People's Party became the first administration to complete a five-year term and ensure a successful democratic transition to another civilian government. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz then returned to power in 2013, making him the first person to ever be elected prime minister three times.

A New Pakistan

Now, of course, Sharif has been ousted, and another prime minister's term has been cut short just weeks before Pakistan celebrates its 70th anniversary. However, the circumstances that followed his removal speak to a growing political resilience that may quell new military takeovers: There were no defections from Sharif's party, and members quickly rallied around a successor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Musharraf's pronouncements notwithstanding, Pakistan's army has also maintained some distance in response to the Supreme Court's verdict. Retired Gen. Raheel Sharif set a new precedent in November when he chose to step down from the powerful position of Chief of Army Staff after only serving one three-year term. It seems that the process of de-politicizing Pakistan's army, while it may take generations, is underway.

Of course, Pakistan's army currently sees itself as facing a major strategic threat in the form of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since Modi's constituency includes a faction of Hindu nationalists opposed to the creation of Pakistan. Modi's overtures to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have worried the Pakistani army, and, mindful of 1971, it will concentrate its energies on preventing Afghanistan from falling into India's orbit. As long as the military feels the country's civilians are giving it space to pursue this objective, it will avoid overt political assertions in Islamabad. But in the eyes of the military, survival is at stake. If it catches wind of an administration reconciling with India, it will reassert itself.

But this reassertion may be indirect, such as with the Joint Investigation Report that damned Sharif. (Two of the six authors of the report were military members). Abbasi will be careful to avoid alienating the army, which in turn means there will be little room for Pakistan to reconcile with India (to say nothing of constraints on the Indian side). And though Sharif is down, he's not out; it's uncertain if this latest roadblock will mark the end of his political career or merely be a temporary break in its trajectory.

Looking Back to Move Ahead

Seventy years ago, Muhammad Ali Jinnah secured a homeland for India's Muslims, armed with the philosophies and ideas dreamed up by him and his brightest peers. The project took drastic twists and turns. But while Jinnah's ghost is silent, the echoes of the partition can still be heard in the chambers of parliament and in the valleys of Kashmir, where the fire of an undying antagonism between colonial siblings still burns with quiet intensity.

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