Podcast: Ayesha Jalal on Pakistan's 'Revenge of the '40s, Then the '80s'

Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal in Lahore, Summer 2011.

This is the latest installment of a series of podcasts entitled Another Pakistan, a co-production of the Asia Society and the Watson Institute at Brown University. Click here to learn more. Scroll to the end of this post to listen to the podcast.

It takes a historian of Ayesha Jalal's power to crystallize an awkward truth: that the agony of Pakistan today is inseparable from the tragedy of Pakistan's birth in 1947. Still more bluntly, that Pakistan as we know it is not at all the country that its sainted founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had in mind. As she puts it in conversation, "Complete partition was the last thing he wanted…"

It is an argument that made her famous in her first book: The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985). The Muslim nation that Jinnah championed was a state of mind more than a nation-state. Separation from India was a bargaining ploy more than it was a demand in principle. What Jinnah wanted was a power-sharing arrangement at the all-India level, between his own Muslim League and the mostly Hindu Congress Party. He wanted equal standing, that is, in a pluralistic Union of India, but never a bordered nation, and still less an arbitrary dismemberment of the Muslims' two great regional powerbases: the Punjab in the northwest of India and Bengal in the East. She is speaking of the history that stalks Pakistan and the wider world: Partition in the 1940s, and then the Cold War in the 1980s.

If you're talking about Pakistan as it stands today — Pakistan with its bouts of unreasonableness, its treatment of minorities, the killing of minorities, the blasphemy laws, a whole succession of things — it's clearly not the Pakistan that the founder of Pakistan imagined. The founder of Pakistan was first and foremost a constitutional lawyer, who believed in the supremacy of the law — something that has never somehow caught the imagination of Pakistanis. They may talk about it, but there is no law. Each man is a law unto himself. Whoever can grab it, that's it. So that’s a fundamental departure.

Second, when Jinnah spoke of Pakistan as a Muslim state, he envisioned a democratic, enlightened Pakistan. So what I'm saying is that there are many levels at which this country departs from Jinnah's ideals. But the most interesting thing I’ve discovered is that by the same token, everyone or most people do hark back to Jinnah's Pakistan. So while they have moved away from Jinnah’s Pakistan as an ideal, it remains as a main point of discussion. That is something hopeful, I think…

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Christopher Lydon is the host of Radio Open Source, a conversation on arts, ideas and politics from Brown University's Watson Institute.

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Christopher Lydon is the host of Radio Open Source, a conversation on arts, ideas and politics from Brown University's Watson Institute.