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August 14, 2018

Pakistan and the world in the post-partition press


August 14, 2018

August 14, 1947, the day, this world witnessed the birth of a nation unlike any other. A nation conceived in the minds of intellectuals and dreamers, a nation with no cultural basis or historical precedent, a nation, in the eyes of many, with no right to exist and no chance of survival. And yet, 71 years later, despite all odds, this nation stands tall and strong as a testament to the unwavering will and commitment of the Pakistani people.

To say Pakistan has had a troubled history would be an understatement. The young federation has dealt with much in the way of growing pains, seven decades would arguably be insufficient for any country to mature let alone one that had to be built from the ground up; one of the main challenges faced by Pakistan at its inception was the absence of a national identity.

Born into a world defined by conflict Pakistan, along with most newly and soon to be independent states found itself at an ideological crossroads. The direction of our foreign policy was to play a key role in determining the way the Pakistani identity and society would evolve. Bearing this in mind, when looking back at newspapers from 1948 we get a sense of the various factors pushing and pulling Pakistan in various directions.


Naturally, any discussion on ideology in Pakistan would be incomplete without the mention of Islamism. The late 1940’s was a difficult time for the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia there were ongoing struggles for independence from colonial powers. The role of Muslim leadership that had traditionally been held by the Ottoman Empire now lay vacant and in the centre of it all, the Palestinian conflict was reaching a flashpoint. Being a nation founded on the basis of Islam, Pakistan seemed poised to fill the vacuum and spearhead the emergence of a third global power bloc. To this end, we actively pursued strong bilateral relations with both Iran and Afghanistan; while it may seem like a distant fantasy now, headlines such as this one from July ‘48 were fairly common: “Afghanistan is a true friend of Pakistan”.

With a global wave of internationalism capturing the minds of people and the creation of bodies such as the UNO, the Western Union and the Arab League, Pakistan’s desire to create and lead an Islamic bloc was not unfounded. Rather, it fits quite well with the theme of the decade that was to come. Pakistan’s grand ambition was clearly expressed by government officials such as Khwaja Shahabuddin who, in a column printed in July stated: “With the birth of Pakistan, the outlook of the people of this land [The area stretching from Pakistan to Egypt] has also undergone a radical change. Hitherto living under the galling yoke of alien rule and native caste hegemony the Muslims had no opportunity to develop their destiny according to their own genius. Their real voice was stifled, their press was gagged and they were forced to view the world only through borrowed glasses.”

Unfortunately, this conviction from Pakistan’s end was not shared by others as our efforts did not lead to any great outcomes. The reason for this failure was not only the lukewarm response of other Muslim states but also the ever growing influences of America and the USSR, both of whom were determined to establish connections in the Middle East, Pakistan simply could not keep up with the two superpowers in this regard.

However, Islam’s use as a unifying force was central not only to our foreign policy but to our domestic policies as well. Islam was the only common ground between all the people of Pakistan and thus had to be emphasised upon by the government in order to promote unity and nationalism. Despite this, it is worth noting that the Muslim League was not a religious party like it is today, their ideas were mostly liberal and democratic in nature. One of the main reasons the Muslim League leadership did not push for the Islamisation of the state was recognition of the fact that such a move would tear the country apart on a sectarian and communal basis at a time when unity was paramount in the face of internal and external threats.


Indo-Pak relations have always been strained at best, but in the early years, our relationship was far more complex. While the conflicts in Kashmir and later in Hyderabad state were the source of much animosity between both states, there was also an inescapable inter-dependence drawing both countries together. As a result on any given day, the front page of a newspaper could be condemning Indian aggression while on page 2 there would be a story about emerging bilateral trade deals. In the first year or so of independence, India did not consider Pakistan to be foreign territory, resulting in a short lived period of free trade and free movement, early in the year there was a particular focus on the trade of food. The nature of this hostile trade relationship is clearly displayed in the following quote printed in the 1948 issue of Dawn, a popular English newspaper of the time:

“Pakistan is prepared to feed India out of its surpluses but it would be better if India gave up her attitude of trying to embarrass Pakistan for the food items in which Pakistan is just temporarily deficit”.

Another interesting point in our relations was the love and respect that Gandhi received from Pakistan. Even months after his death memorials were held for him, in stark contrast to the office bearing Indian leaders, whose foreign policy was described in DAWN as ‘Hitlerian”.

The simple reason behind this being that Gandhi did not seek to antagonise Pakistan, being a very traditional Hindu he did not favour an aggressive stance and Pakistan recognised this. A headline from January of 1948 reads:

“Delhi warmongers are bent upon negativing Gandhi’s peace efforts” -Malik Feroz Khan Noon.

Had Gandhi’s line been followed in India the subcontinent would have been very different from what it is today. There is no doubt that our relations with India have been a defining part of our history, but the effect they had on our society and our position on the world stage, at least in 1948, was not huge.

East or West?

This was the question that defined the latter half of the century, early on Pakistan made the decision to favour the Western capitalist bloc over the Eastern communist one.

The reasons for this decision were fairly clear cut; the influence of Western powers, particularly Britain, within the subcontinent was inarguable. It should be noted that, in the early years, Pakistan simply could not afford to antagonise Britain; they were our largest trading partner by far and British officers filled many key roles in the Pakistan army. In January of 1948, the government expected nationalisation of the army to take another three years, given that conflict with India was growing ever closer it was imperative that the armed forces remain fully staffed and loyal.

Beyond this the simple fact that all of our leaders were British educated meant that they held ideals more closely matching those of the West, the Muslim League was determined to establish a democracy, almost to a fault as, in hindsight, it can be argued that we were not ready for a democratic system.

And so, the question of East or West was one that ultimately had a predetermined answer for Pakistan, but regardless of that fact, Pakistan did have a communist presence in the form of a small but determined group of intellectuals and writers such as Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The Communist Party of India even played a significant role in securing votes for the Muslim League in Sindh and Punjab during the 1945-46 elections. This mutual understanding, however, did not last and soon after independence, the government began to crack down on communist sympathisers.

Where now?

As we celebrate our 71st Independence Day anniversary this year, we ought to look back at the struggles we have gone through as a nation, to pay our respects to the previous generations who fought for our future, to mourn their failings and to use every opportunity to redouble our efforts and strive to make Pakistan the great nation our founding fathers foresaw.

We must be prepared to take up the torch and carry our nation forward against whatever challenges the future may hold, the world has changed a great deal in the last 71 years but still the Pakistani people remain ever hopeful, determined and resilient because truly, as Jinnah said:

“There is no power on Earth that can undo Pakistan.”


Muslims waiting to leave for Pakistan as they seek protected transport to an ancient fort, Purana Qila in 1947

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