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Pakistan Day: a reflection on past, present and future

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Five books that students, scholars, academics and researchers who are interested in contemporary Pakistan should read, recommends Dr Ammar Ali Jan


Pakistan Day is celebrated today to commemorate the Lahore resolution (later termed Pakistan Resolution) passed at Muslim League’s annual session held from the 22nd to the 24th of March, 1940. Such occasions provide a good opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future of the country. I am recommending five books that, I believe, students, scholars and anyone interested in contemporary Pakistan should read. This is not an exhaustive list and only includes academic books on the overall trajectory of the country.

The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence by Ayesha Jalal is a masterpiece by Pakistan’s most eminent historian and explains the rise of the military as the most powerful institution in the country. It examines how the state tried to govern an ethnically and geographically fractured country in the 1950s.

The strength of the book is the detail in which it describes the multiple intrigues, including tactics of intimidation, bribe and electoral manipulation, deployed by the state to cobble together a coalition of subservient politicians.

I believe this book has a lot to say on the concept of “Managed Democracies”, a concept I am currently working on to explain the rise of authoritarianism under liberal democracies. Unfortunately, Pakistan might still be experiencing a managed democracy, since we have failed to completely exorcised the ghosts of authoritarianism and manipulation that have haunted us since the 1950s.

The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience By Christophe Jefferlot is one of my favourite textbooks on Pakistan’s history. It begins by covering the different strands of Muslim revivalism in the 19th century and has a thorough discussion of the emergence and the contradictions of the Pakistan Movement.

It then provides us with detailed analysis of the different governments in the country and correctly identifies the rise of centralization as a major wound for the post-colonial state. This centralization was the result of both the fear of external enemies and the ethnic cleavages that threatened internal unity. Islamism and liberal nationalism (of the Musharraf/Ayub Khan variety) were both used to suppress the historically embedded conflicts within society.

Yet, it also has an optimistic outlook, suggesting that the existential threats Pakistan faces can force the country to finally confront its demons. It also has an excellent discussion on various ethnic groups and on PTI’s 2014 dharna.

Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy by Ayesha Siddiqa is a must read for anyone willing to understand the nature and breadth of the military’s power in the country’s affairs. Too often, our understanding of the military-civil relations is premised upon the overtly political nature of the civil-military contestation. Yet, this book demonstrates that there is more than just prestige at stake in this battle.

There is an entire financial empire built by the military with its own peculiar institutions and infrastructure. Part of the problem with the militarization of the economy is that it is deemed outside the purview of public scrutiny due to its “sensitive nature”.

This linguistic trick has kept all discussions on military accountability outside public discourse. It is pertinent to note that politicians are often partners of the military in many of these financial ventures, building a fragile economic consensus across the civil-military divide.

Issues in Pakistan’s Political Economy by Akbar Zaidi is, perhaps, the best textbook on Pakistan’s economy and the development of economic thought. It also has a very solid critique of Ayub Khan’s much celebrated “Decade of Development” and the “Green Revolution” which led to a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families.

The book also challenges the neoliberal orthodoxy pushed by the IMF in the 1980s and 1990s when the PPP and the PM-N governments agreed to impose privatization and deregulation. These prescriptions have led to misery for ordinary people while enriching the elites, aggravating inequality in the country as a result. Furthermore, it challenges the widely-held belief that Pakistan is a “feudal society”, demonstrating how capitalist relations have now penetrated across rural Pakistan.

This book should be read with Akmal Hussain’s Strategic Issues in Pakistan’s Economic Policy which again details the elite-bias in our country’s economic policies, including an unfair taxation system. There are fascinating discussions on budgets, land reforms and the country’s debt crisis.

The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan by Asim Sajjad Akhtar attempts to develop a framework for understanding the development of the Pakistani state. It builds on Hamza Alavi’s work on the Over-Developed State which argues that the military-bureaucratic oligarchy runs the country with the backing of the Empire. Yet, Dr Asim argues that the relationship between state and society is far more complex as the state perpetually needs to co-opt ordinary people. This identification with the state creates a ‘common sense’ in which people gravitate towards the state’s narrative. It implies that a rupture from the present order can only occur if a new common sense, emerging from struggles to gestate within the womb of society, can replace the existing logic of power.

The book has some excellent discussions on Antonio Gramsci and Partha Chatterjee’s work, as well as detailing the experience of multiple social movements in Pakistan in which the author has participated over the past two decades.

Asim also happens to be a major political and intellectual inspiration for our entire generation, so reading his work is a particularly rewarding experience for the clarity and urgency he brings to academic work.

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