The year 1947 saw the Indian Independence Act, which led to the dissolution of India from Crown Rule as well as the formation of two independent dominions- a secular India and a Muslim Pakistan. According to the British elite and specifically Lord Louis Mountbatten, Pakistan was to be split up into East and West Pakistan, with the subcontinent of India separating the two regions. The push for an independent Muslim state, spurred by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, resulted in the formation of Pakistan but this movement found it quite difficult to actually govern a sovereign nation. At the onset of an independent Pakistan, problems quickly arose regarding how an economy would flourish, the religious inclusion of the region, and the political structure of a government that would lead the people. Fundamental errors made by the political leadership and elites that sought to establish Pakistan as a formidable power on the global stage led to a vicious cycle of dictatorships, military rule, and failed attempts at democracy for the region. It can be inferred that an early promotion of a garrison state and the inability to unite the different regions of Pakistan as one unified people as well as the rise of autocratic leaders post-independence ultimately led to the failure of democracy to take root in Pakistan. This failure of democracy to take root early on had longstanding consequences and can be held responsible for much of the issues that plague the nation today (inability to affectively fight against Covid, government corruption, etc.).
After the year 1947, the newly created Islamic Republic of Pakistan was led by Governor-General Jinnah and saw millions of Muslims migrate from India for their new home in one of the bloodiest mass movements in history. Upon arrival, this diverse crowd of millions was met by a political structure that severely lacked the ability to reconcile national integration and security. Only a few short months after its Independence, Pakistan found itself fighting a war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir and this was quite a pivotal moment in why democracy ultimately was not successful early on. Ian Talbot, in his article “Understanding the Failure of Pakistan’s First Experiment with Democracy,” makes the claim that the Kashmir conflict was an unfinished business of partition and set in motion a “military-bureaucratic combine” in Pakistan that continued in the years to follow. When a newly formed countries first step is to get involved in conflict, it’s reasonable to conclude that this will shape the mindset and political motives of its leaders and citizens moving forward. This approach that Pakistan implemented after independence where the military was more privileged than society and the military-industrial complex was built before a sustainable political structure led to a deficiency in democratic values of self-representation and checks and balances.
The population of Pakistan at this point was both quite linguistically diverse and spread over a vast area, and the ordering of Urdu as the state language did not aid in forming the sense of unity seen in an otherwise cohesive society and nation. One of the characteristic components of a democracy is the active participation of citizens in political and civic life but looking at the history of Pakistan right after the short term stay of Jinnah, nowhere can this self-governing be seen. It is important to note that Jinnah advocated for an inclusive Pakistan where all of the citizens came together and put country first. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah can be quoted saying that the ideal situation would be when Hindus and Muslims would come together and see their identity not in a religious sense but in a political sense as citizens of the state. Shortly after Jinnah’s death in 1948, this view of inclusivity and national harmony was quickly replaced with the promotion of national unity against India by a cycle of dictators and religion-oriented leaders.
After Jinnah’s death, Pakistan saw a cycle of leadership that consisted of attempts at democracy followed by military coups and dictatorships. The message of religious inclusivity and tolerance Jinnah spoke of in his address to the Constituent Assembly was soon replaced by Islamic fundamentalism and an appeal to the citizens of Pakistan to come together under Islam and fight against India. This sentiment was primarily pushed to the forefront by future leaders such as General Ayub Khan and Zia-Ul-Haq. Much of this reliance on autocratic leadership can be traced back to the precedent Jinnah set during his time as Governor-General. Early on, Jinnah chose to be the Governor-General, president of the All Pakistan Muslim League, Speaker of the Constituent Assembly, and take charge of Kashmir’s affairs. This centralization of power, specifically legal, political and executive, gave Jinnah immense control over the country he was leading and this in itself is not very representative of a democracy. Although he may not have publicly rejected a democracy, his actions were characteristic of an autocrat and this set in motion a series of events that led to the failure of lasting democracy in Pakistan. By Jinnah setting a precedent for autocratic leadership with centralized power, future leaders of Pakistan followed this trend when governing and democracy had less and less of a chance of being successful. It is important to recognize that Jinnah was in a very tough position as a leader and it can be argued that he had no other option but to centralize power to get the country through a major crisis. Although it is possible this is the case, Jinnah’s actions cannot be overlooked when considering why exactly democracy failed to take root in Pakistan.
An autocratic precedent of governing set forth by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as well as an inability of Pakistan’s leaders to reconcile national unity and security led is ultimately what led to the failure of democracy to take root in Pakistan and this had consequences that still plague the nation today. After breaking away from India and forming a new Muslim nation, the leaders of Pakistan prioritized military power and centralized government while overlooking the importance of building a sustainable political and social structure rooted in democratic ideals. It can be argued that during the crisis that ensued independence, a strong central leadership was needed but the reason why we do not see a strong democracy today in Pakistan can be traced back to the actions taken during this critical period. At the birth of a democratic nation, it is imperative that the government promotes putting its people first, checks and balances, and transparency- none of which Pakistan was able to do successfully when it mattered most.