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Which Way, Pakistan?

The role of key pillars of state is important in the formation and development of Pakistan. It increases their responsibilities manifold.

By Ian Talbot | April 2021


Pakistan is fast approaching its 75th anniversary of independence, but the country is faced with all too familiar problems of weak governance, political instability and faltering economic development. How can one account for the nation’s continuing domestic and international travails? Politicians blame each other; some scholars point the finger at the establishment; liberal commentators highlight the toxicity of religious militancy.

Too often, a change of government is seen as a simple answer to all the country’s problems. They are, in fact, rooted in entrenched attitudes and power relations which stretch back over decades, some indeed to the colonial era. Whilst the present has not been pre-determined, it has been profoundly influenced by these inheritances.

Pakistan came into being with a democratic deficit. It inherited a tradition of bureaucratic authoritarianism, and patron-client politics. There was an absence of representative politics in Balochistan, and the tribal areas. In Punjab, the North West Frontier and Sindh, British rule had bolstered the power of feudal landlords and tribal chiefs. The Muslim League was a latecomer to the Muslim majority areas. It had to co-opt the rural elite in the Pakistan struggle. The prominence of many of today’s so-called ‘electables’ can be traced back to the colonial era. They have proved ‘biddable’ for both civilian and military regimes, thereby undermining political stability and the process of democratic consolidation.

hamid-makerThe freedom struggle had also secured popular support by being deliberately vague about the nature of a future Pakistan state. Many of the leading Deobandi ‘ulama’ (Islamic scholars), nevertheless, had opposed the ‘secularist’ Muslim League leadership. The debate about the role of Islam in Pakistan has raged ever since. It is rooted in the fact that the freedom struggle itself was variously conceived as a ‘movement of Islam’ and a ‘movement of Muslims.’

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Ian Talbot

Professor Ian Talbot is a Professor in History of Modern South Asia at the University of Southampton, UK. His key interests are in the fields of the history of the colonial Punjab; the 1947 Partition of India and the history of Pakistan. He can be reached at

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