Book Review: ‘Can Pakistan Survive?’

Imperial hangover

‘Can Pakistan Survive?’, by Tariq Ali (Penguin, £2.95)

When the British ruling class decided that its continued exploitation of South Asia was best done outside a formal imperial framework, the region was divided into two states along religious lines. Thus in 1947 Pakistan came into existence, divided into two parts separated by a thousand miles of India. The history of “independent” Pakistan since that time is the subject of Tariq Ali’s latest book.

The British authorities left behind a model of repression which was enthusiastically emulated by the military rulers who took their place. In February 1946, for instance, over five hundred workers had been shot as a general strike in Bombay was put down. Post-independence Pakistan was still tied closely to the British economy, as a producer of raw materials whose small industrial sector was largely owned by British capitalists. If Pakistan as a whole remained a kind of colony, though, East Pakistan became subordinated to the politically-dominant West. Raw materials from East Pakistan brought in foreign exchange, which was used to develop West Pakistan industry, which in turn had a captive market in the East. Such conflicts of interest resulted in the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and the establishment of Bangladesh.

The political history of Pakistan has been of a succession of military dictatorships interspersed with periods of closer approximation to capitalist democracy. The first proper general election was scheduled for March 1959, but the ruling bureaucracy was aware that it faced defeat in any free vote. Six months before the elections were due, the army took power in a coup, ushering in ten years of military dictatorship under Ayub Khan. A rigged election was held in 1965, and in 1969 Ayub, who could no longer rely on his own army officers obeying orders, resigned in favour of Yahya Khan. The long-promised elections of December 1970 showed the party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to be the strongest in the West, while in the East the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman received overwhelming support for a platform of an effectively autonomous Bengal. This could not be tolerated by the rulers in the West, and in March 1971 their army invaded the undefended East, killing tens of thousands. The ultimate outcome, however. was the disintegration of the country, the East becoming the separate state of Bangladesh.

In the former West Pakistan, the army handed over in December 1971 to Bhutto, as the only politician who enjoyed sufficient support to keep the country together. Despite being an elected prime minister, Bhutto showed himself to be no less repressive than the military dictatorships that preceded (and followed) him. He presided over another civil war, this time against the inhabitants of the Baluchistan Province. But this brought the Pakistani army back into the centre of politics and so paved the way for Bhutto’s downfall. In 1977, after rigging the general election, he declared martial law in three cities; then in July of that year the army staged another coup and Zia-ul-Haq took over power. Bhutto was imprisoned and then executed on a trumped-up charge. The Zia dictatorship has now been in power for six years; the President has declared that elections are “un-Islamic”. The regime has been given a boost by the Russian invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan, which has enabled Reagan, Thatcher and their ilk to represent the reactionary dictatorship as a “bastion of the free world”.

Politically, then, it has been a pretty sordid third of a century. The economic and social developments have been no more attractive. Pakistan in 1947 was very underdeveloped, with industry accounting for only six per cent of total output. State subsidies and protection enabled a much larger industrial capitalist sector to establish itself, and trade unions were suppressed as a means of keeping wages down and profits up. The degree of concentration of power and wealth was remarkable: in the mid-sixties, two-thirds of the country’s industrial capital was in the hands of twenty families! Bhutto nationalised a number of large companies — Ali correctly describes this as state capitalism (perhaps Trotskyists are beginning to learn something after all). What effect did this state-controlled capitalist expansion have on those whose labour produced the new wealth? Ali quotes an economist writing in 1980:

    “After over 30 years of high economic growth, only 29 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water. The adult literacy rate is 21 per cent . . . Less than 30 per cent of the population has access to adequate health services or adequate shelter. About 33 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. i.e. have a level of per capita expenditure that fails to satisfy even the minimum needs of the average individual.”

The ordinary workers and peasants have clearly benefitted little if at all.

Surely the lesson of all this is that “independence” is no answer to the problems of colonies and other underdeveloped countries. The appalling social conditions of Pakistan cannot be solved by any government of Pakistan, however nationalistic or radical. The problem of backwardness is a global one and requires a global solution. Tariq Ali’s plea for a “voluntary Federation of South Asian Republics” is no contribution in this regard. Readers will find his book a useful guide to Pakistan’s problems, but for a way out they will have to turn to the ideas of world socialism.

Paul Bennett

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