‘The Struggle for Pakistan’ Masterfully Summarizes a Country’s Troubled History

Dr. Ayesha Jalal's thorough survey will remain the definitive history of Pakistan for decades to come.

On a warm June evening in 2011, I rode in a rickety bus along a dusty Punjabi highway to watch a show on the India-Pakistan border.

It may be odd to read the words “show” and “India-Pakistan border” in the same sentence, but for several years now, the border guards of India and Pakistan have made a nightly ritual of celebrating the closing of the Wagah border crossing, showcasing the two nations’ officially peaceful although often uneasy relationship in the process.

Nearly every night, the respective border guards of India and Pakistan scream, yell, and perform a sequence of Pythonian leg kicks and marches to rapturous crowds on either side, in a performance seemingly choreographed by the Ministry of Silly Walks. All the while, a “ringleader” on each side whips the crowd into a frenzy with a series of call-and-response chants attesting to the nation’s glory in Indian, or Pakistani, depending on which side of the border you’re sitting on. After a half hour of chanting, marching, and generally making as much noise as humanly possible, the performance is over. Guards from each country embrace for a brief handshake, after which the border is officially closed. India and Pakistan have avoided war for one more day. It’s a bizarre spectacle, this display of bi-national “harmony”, especially considering the fraught relationship India and Pakistan have shared since the two nations’ independence in 1947.

As I sat among the Indian crowd that day, I turned to my left and looked at Pakistan. (I was one of the few on the Indian side who appeared to do so.) The Pakistani revellers, compared to their Indian counterparts, were similar in terms of dress and physical appearance, although they displayed markedly more restrained body language. Most Pakistanis seemed unwilling to draw too much attention to themselves. Also unlike on the Indian side, the Pakistani crowd was segmented by sex, with females on one side and men on the other. As I compared the crowds, I wanted to know more about how and why these two proud nations, separated at birth yet still so culturally similar, are progressing at such drastically different paces.

India is on the verge of becoming a superpower; Pakistan is not. Pakistan is a breeding ground for pseudo-fascist religious militants; India is not. In India, there is a burgeoning middle class with a rising amount of disposable income; for the most part, the same is not true in Pakistan. India’s democracy, though certainly not free of serious problems, functions; for several decades of its brief history, Pakistan has been ruled by the military.

As a long-time student of Indian history, I was dager to read Dr. Ayesha Jalal’s latest book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, in an effort to better understand why Pakistan continues to lag behind its sister-nation in terms of economic growth, and social and political stability. Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University, does not disappoint.

Put simply, The Struggle for Pakistan will be the definitive history of Pakistan for decades to come. The author’s prose is clean, the book is thoughtfully structured, and the research is as close to exhaustive as one could imagine. As someone who once spent a few months combing through a South Asian archive, inhaling more dust and soot than some coal miners, I can only tip my hat at the author’s apparent efforts here.

There are a number of revelations throughout The Struggle for Pakistan. Before reading, I failed to appreciate the power vacuum in Pakistani politics that succeeded the death of the young nation’s first Governor-General, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Although it is too simplistic to describe Jinnah as “Pakistan’s Nehru”, the similarities are considerable: just as Jawaharlal Nehru is regarded as one of India’s founding fathers (along with the Mahatma), Jinnah was and is associated with similar national pride and achievement in Pakistan. In negotiating the terms for an independent Pakistan in the years preceding the partition in 1947, Jinnah was often the smartest man in the room. Losing him in 1948, barely one year after assuming office, opened the door to a succession of ineffective, incapable, and often incompetent national leaders, most of whom did not share Jinnah’s pragmatism, commitment to secularism, or political savvy. All too often, scholars record history as the study of great men, and though Jalal avoids this type of lazy scholarship and cautions against it in The Struggle for Pakistan, the book demonstrates how the loss of Jinnah signaled trouble for a fragile, newborn nation.

The events surrounding the Partition of East and West Pakistan from India in 1947 are curiously under-recognized outside of South Asia, and Jalal’s account here is heartbreaking. The author demonstrates how murder, looting, and nationalist hysteria on either side was mostly inspired by opportunism and a blind quest for vengeance, as opposed to religious fervor or “an expression of deeply held faith”. It is my hope that Jalal’s book will inspire more of us to better understand the horror and lingering trauma of partition in our attempt to understand the complex and occasionally hostile relationship that India and Pakistan share today.

The Struggle for Pakistan reveals that, since the country’s inception, Pakistani politics have been plagued by disorder, and the country’s contemporary problems — including religious extremism and infighting and political corruption — have a long and often violent history frequently complicated by Western interests and the Cold War rivalries spanning most of the second half of the 20th century. Jalal attributes the “failings and distortions” of the Pakistani political system to “structural asymmetries”, including “a lack of democratic institutions, inadequate mechanisms for public accountability, a compromised media, inequitable distribution of resources, and a chronic tussle between the centre and the provinces.”

Commenting on the years immediately following the country’s independence, Jalal concludes: “Although no one denied the Muslim character of Pakistan, there was a vast difference between those who interpreted it as, first and foremost, a land of opportunity and others who saw it as the perfect laboratory for their versions of Islam.” As the book makes clear, there remain further divisions between those who see Pakistan as a “land of opportunity” in general, and those who perceive it as a land of opportunity primarily for the wealthy classes. In a bold, perhaps dangerously provocative stance, Jalal writes about the “callousness of the rich and powerful elite of Pakistan,” the landowners who continue to take advantage of “a destitute and illiterate majority”, many of whom are still profiting from the bloodshed and chaos of the 1947 partition.

In spite of the fact that Pakistan has seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse on and off for over 60 years, there are glimmers of hope in The Struggle for Pakistan. Perhaps the most significant among them is the public’s growing recognition of democracy as “the one remaining salve that can relieve the extreme stresses caused by aborted political processes and military authoritarianism.” Still, Jalal’s book is, more often than not, a deeply troubling read; as she concludes, “the magnitude and range of problems besieging Pakistan are so enormous that even the best efforts on the part of a competent elected government may not be enough to steady the course.”

Anyone attempting to see into Pakistan’s future or better understand its complex past should read The Struggle for Pakistan. I have no doubt that it will remain the definitive history of the young nation for decades to come. It is beyond my ambition as a reviewer to “summarize” it any further, as doing so would both cheapen and detract from the reader’s experience of this immensely perceptive, thought-provoking book. It is sufficient to conclude that Dr. Jalal has accomplished something remarkable in presenting the history of Pakistan in such an engaging, comprehensive, and readable manner, lacking the pretense all-too-common to academic works of this scope. You don’t have to be a student of South Asian history to understand and appreciate Ayesha Jalal’s achievement here.

RATING 9 / 10