Country experts tend to imagine that their areas of interest are uniquely and distinctly of special scholarly interest. Pakistan, according to Aqil Shah (former Rhodes Scholar and currently a Junior Fellow with Harvard University’s prestigious Society of Fellows) really is remarkable, however, for the exceptionally lengthy duration of the cyclical interchange of power between civilian and military authorities over 65 years. In a tightly-organized presentation on February 7, titled “Permanent Coup D’état:” The Historical and Institutional Foundations of Military Intervention in Pakistan” and introduced by Ali Asani (Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Culture and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard), Shah painted a vivid picture of the geopolitical, ideological and social formations that have influenced the growth of a military culture that promotes norms of discipline, order and organized hierarchy along with a sense of patronage over the nation-state, rooted in a concern for security in the face of a permanent state of “existential threat”. While this threat has in part been attributed to countries like India and the United States, Shah claims that it has increasingly become introjected. That is, the military establishment proclaims itself a robust and more patriotic foil for the corrupt civilian alternatives, which have been deemed inadequate to the task of building a sustained, cohesive national identity. Ironically, the military itself remains largely tied to Punjab, underlining ethnic inequalities and their important role in the national fabric. Based on sources ranging from colonial archives to interviews with former prime ministers and key players in previous military coups, Shah delineated the military’s trajectory from a resource-poor legacy of British rule to an institution gradually released from public accountability in the face of multiple wars with India and Pakistan’s strategic role in Cold War-era international politics. Later periods of military intervention reinforced civilian adaptation to prior ones, and with time military dominance has developed into significant economic and social capital.
Shah closed this inaugural “Muslim Societies in South Asia” event of the semester with some thoughts on the current situation and anticipation of how civil-military relations might become increasingly democratized in the future. While Pakistan’s democracy remains relatively unstable, hampered in part by an ailing economy and a “youth bulge”, the country’s populace on the whole seems averse to military rule for the time being. With the liberalizing reforms of the Musharraf regime, the current military leadership has deftly managed the new media to bolster its legitimacy, and is highly vocal amidst continuous waves of government scandals. In answer to a question about potential bases for optimism for change, Shah cited recent unprecedented constitutional and electoral developments along with some signs of the strengthening of potential alternative centers of power, such as the judiciary and civil society. Moreover, the military-corporate complex, Shah suggested, is cognizant of the need for strengthening the nation’s economy as a way of fulfilling its mission to mitigate security threats. One theme that clearly emerged from Shah’s historiography was the prevalence of an oft-cited focus on personalities detached from the institutions they are connected to; Zia ul Haq or Ayub Khan’s misadventures did little to discredit the institution of the military itself long-term. As such, Shah concluded the Q and A session by unmasking some of the complexities of the dissonance experienced by the Pakistani peoples, highlighting the multiple sets of desires experienced by a country still in the process of establishing a sense of national integrity.
– Nabil Khan, Harvard University | MTS Candidate, Religion, Science and Medicine, 2013 and Vice-President Communications, Harvard Pakistan Student Group