Progressive Thought in the Pakistani Raj


Pakistani political thought since Independence has existed along a wide and diverse ideological spectrum. However, the overarching framework within which the conversion of political thought into political action occurs -and is practiced- is still embedded in a colonial governance mindset. Therefore, this piece separates the two –political thought and politics– and argues that the former is vibrant, progressive, diverse and indirectly anti-colonial, whilst the latter, being the operation and function of politics and government, may be seen as possessing a large amount of characteristics of the system of government and ideas of governance which were prevalent under the colonial British Raj.

Firstly, I examine two main themes to explain the continuing colonial nature and attitude of the Pakistani state and its politics – the dominance of ‘feudal’ Pakistan(especially in Punjab) in politics; and the early role played by Pakistan’s bureaucracy – both heavily contributing to continuing a colonial mindset in politics and governance. I also examine the states’ response to the crisis in East Pakistan which I argue is a prime example of the prevalent colonial mindset. Secondly, I explain why I believe political thought in Pakistan is very different to the colonial nature of the state(through which political thought is given national action), by exploring the main streams of thought which have been popular– Nazria-e-PakistanDeobandiat, socialism, and secularism, (although there are a very many more, and many strains which combine two or more). Here, I also explain that, contrary to common misperceptions that the Pakistani state has ‘used’ Islam as a tool of control, the emphasis on the importance of Islam in political thought and ideology has been a bottom-up exercise and demand of the vocal masses, funneled and expressed through the leaders of popular movements. This makes the usage of Islam in politics a characteristic of free political thought, rather than an instrument of a colonial legacy state.

Lastly, possible explanations are listed as to why political thought which has little to do with the colonial past, and in many ways is antithetical to Pakistan’s colonial historical experience, then exists and operates within a system of politics and governance which has many similarities with the British Raj structure.

There is little doubt that from its inception the early Pakistani state operated as a continuum of its predecessor, the British Raj, both in structure and action.

There is little doubt that from its inception the early Pakistani state operated as a continuum of its predecessor, the British Raj, both in structure and action. Though there is ample evidence of a different political vision from the Founding Fathers of Pakistan, such as Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Allama M. Iqbal and Liaquat Ali Khan, and other leading Muslim Leaguers – this has not be realized for a number of reasons.

Prime amongst these was the dominance of the feudal structure in Pakistan and in the Muslim League. A look at the composition of the Muslim League since its founding in 1906 indicates a strong bias towards landowning Muslim families, mainly from the former United Provinces and Punjab.[i] The League’s foundational reasons themselves were to protect the primacy of access to jobs, land, power and wealth of these Muslim families in these provinces.[ii]These landowning and industrial interests had long been intertwined within the colonial structure and its politics.[iii] Favor and grants from the colonial authorities to these powerful families kept them contented and in turn they ‘subdued’ the populace to retain control for the Raj.[iv] Thus, a complex top-down colonial structure of favors, grants, diktats and patrimonialism dominated the relationships of everyone from the patwari to the high representatives of the Crown. The colonial state emphasized order and control above all, and was not averse to the use of force as a common tactic to quell legitimate dissent and opposition.[v]

In Punjab, where the League was less popular during Pre-partition, the Unionists were even more a product of vested feudal interests.[vi] Before its members’ eventual assimilation into the League, it controlled Punjab (in alliance with its partners), through the provincial legislature, lording over the societal structure. Particularly in rural areas where direct colonial authority had little penetration, the Unionists provided de-facto authority. By wooing the pirs, who in turn had the loyalties of the rural, largely Sufi-oriented population through the pir-mureedi system of religious devotion and guidance, the Unionists, and thus the colonial authorities retained legitimacy – both religious and legal.[vii] It was a similar situation in interior Sindh and Sardar-controlled Balochistan where a large majority of feudal elites were also in close partnership with colonial authorities and gained wealth and power through patronage.[viii]As with the vested interests in the League, feudal interests here too retained their power and thus their colonial mindset after Independence in 1947, with there being no popular alternatives to their dominance in politics. Many feudal interests from those parts which became India post-partition (such as from UP and Bengal/Bihar to a lesser extent) migrated to Pakistan to form the Muhajir community (centered in the then capital Karachi), involving themselves in the learned professions and crucially, the bureaucracy – bringing with them a colonial mindset.[ix] This continuing legacy of colonialism was rarely a part of the political conversation of Pakistan, ignored to a large extent in favor of the more pressing popular debates of the time centered on the practical needs of a newly created nation.

Thus, Pakistan’s early political class was largely dominated by colonial minded elites who had a vested interest in continuing the practices of the colonial state to retain their own authority. The few powerful personalities against this colonial mindset were themselves dependent on these entrenched feudal structures for funds, administrative support, political mobility and for providing intermediary networks to the rural population. There was little they could do, as instituting reforms against this colonial mindset and its adherents would have also destabilized a fledgling Pakistan further, when it most needed stability. Eventually, the progressive minded leadership which had been at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement faded away or was replaced by the mid-1950s.

The dominance of feudal structures is still a powerful force in rural Pakistani politics today. However, the survival of the colonial mindset and usage of its methods of rule, patrimonialism, rent-seeking and patronage could not have been possible without the help of another very powerful body – the bureaucracy.

Pakistan’s early political class was largely dominated by colonial minded elites who had a vested interest in continuing the practices of the colonial state to retain their own authority.

The bureaucratic-feudal alliance was most apparent during the 1950’s and subsequently during the Ayub era. After Partition a large number of bureaucrats from the former Imperial Indian Civil Service (ICS) took charge of the Pakistan Civil Services (CSS).[x]The ICS, having been a thoroughly colonial organization had been deeply entrenched in a colonial mindset and structure. This mindset was brought over to the CSS and little efforts were undertaken to modernize its methods of service delivery or adapt its relationships with the populace and the political elite to better suit an independent decolonized jurisdiction.[xi]The legal structure under which the CSS operated was not adapted, with Pakistan using the same colonial statues and legal frameworks of the British Raj[xii] – written for a different system of governance. This was further compounded by the retention by the Pakistani government of senior British bureaucrats in the higher echelons of the CSS to facilitate a smooth transfer.[xiii]Thus, the CSS, despite early on developing into a highly efficient organization,[xiv] still operated as a colonial bureaucracy, in partnership with the feudal structure, compounding the legacy of colonial rule. Due to the vast capacities of state where the bureaucracy has control and influence, the fact that this body was unable to shed its colonial legacy is an important reason why the practice of Pakistani politics and government is of a colonial nature even today. Any political power in government, whatever its political thought, cannot negate the continuing legacy of colonial rule, because the implementation (even the formulation) of policy is undertaken by a patrimonial, colonial minded bureaucracy. Only through reform of the CSS can this change occur.

Here, it would be amiss not to mention the Pakistani Army and its overarching umbrella (the Establishment). There is a long running argument that the Army as an organization has been an important actor in maintaining a colonial mindset of rule in Pakistan.[xv] This is a misleading argument as many commentators superimpose their experiences of ‘rogue’ militaries in other developing nations onto Pakistan. It is correct that from ranking officers to the jawan, there is a relationship with the feudal structure in Pakistan – primarily that of kinship. This is natural, as a sizeable composition of military officers does come from the prevalent feudal structure in Punjab (yet an even larger number of officer’s hail from KPK).[xvi]But, this relationship has always been between individuals, and never the Army as an organization. Naturally, these individual relationships have allowed the feudal structure to gain some favor from these individuals in the Army, however this has not been the norm. In fact the opposite is true, as the Army as a collective has repeatedly come into conflict with the feudal structure and its colonial mindset,[xvii] as the feudal structure has sought to entrench itself in Pakistani politics and the Army has sought to modernize and establish a direct relationship with the masses, on whose continuing support it most relies upon. The conflicts between the Army and the PPP, and the Army and the PML-N are prime examples of this; a struggle between a feudal colonial mindset versus an increasingly open, outward looking and progressive military. The Army’s relationship with the bureaucracy is also somewhat misunderstood, as the CSS has bettered as an organization most during periods of military rule.[xviii]However, despite efforts to break down the feudal structure and its colonial mindset, the Establishment, in which the Army is the main actor, has repeatedly failed for the same reasons that early progressives failed – the entrenched nature of the feudal elite without whom governing becomes near impossible and for which there have been very few suitable alternatives to fill a possible vacuum (until recently in the form of the PTI).

The colonial nature of the state has led to its policies being formed through a colonial mindset. This is especially true of domestic policy against dissent. The 1971 crisis in East Pakistan was the result of both a colonial attitude towards an ‘other’ population of subjects and a colonial approach in attempting to solve the problem once it had arisen. The crisis grew out of the refusal of the PPP under Z. A. Bhutto (himself a son of the feudal structure in Sindh & Balochistan in West Pakistan) to accept the legitimate demand of the Awami League to create a majority government – having won a majority. This would have meant a loss of power for the feudal structure in West Pakistan. The colonial mindset would not allow an ‘inferior’, quasi-colonized, non-Urdu speaking part of the country to sit in government, just as colonial officials in the British Raj were always reluctant to grant power to the ‘natives’. This, despite the fact that an Awami League government would not only have constituted a negligible impact on the daily lives of millions of West Pakistanis, but would have considerably improved long deteriorating relations between East and West.[xix]Once the crisis had indeed arisen, the government of Yahya Khan, in partnership with Bhutto, implemented a policy straight out of the colonial officers handbook – when negotiations fail, use force. But West Pakistan did not have the resources of a British Empire to call upon, and a clamping down on dissent in East Pakistan was used as an excuse by India to enter into the conflict – only too happy to take advantage of the chaos. But, ultimately the ego of a colonial legacy prevalent amongst powerful elite was the cause of the crisis.

The colonial nature of the state has led to its policies being formed through a colonial mindset. This is especially true of domestic policy against dissent.

The colonial mindset of the Pakistani state and its politics detailed above stand in stark contrast to the most popular strands of political thought, with these being post-colonial, indirectly anti-colonial (without being expressively anti-colonial), progressive, competitive and open to both debate and interpretation. Political thought in Pakistan has been influenced by everything other than colonialism – Islamic thought and history, Marxism, regional politics, ethnicity, social issues, and more. Here, I explain the rationale and motivations behind some of the most popular strains of political thought in Pakistan, explaining why they are anything but a legacy of colonial rule.


Nazria-e-Pakistan (the most common name attributed to the theory) is by far the most popular political theory in Pakistan. This thought and its variants have been dominant since the Pakistan Movement and continue to be so. Even those who subscribe to other non-indigenous theories believe in part or whole in the concepts of this theory. The theory stems from the writings, speeches, and events of the Pakistan Movement – more precisely to the writings and actions of Syed Ahmed Khan, Allama Iqbal, Quaid-e-Azam M. A. Jinnah, and their contemporaries. Yet it also traces (or is sometimes artificially traced) its rationale to earlier events in Sub-continental Islam, e.g. the idea of Muhammad bin Qasim being the first Pakistani. The ideas are a potent mix of Islamic jurisprudence (mainly Sufi in nature, though some Salafi and Deobandiconcepts too), Islamic political thought (plus Islamic Socialism in its economic form), Allama Iqbal’s philosophy,[xx] language, patriotism and current regional geo-political realities. It advocates that after the success of the Tehreek-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Movement) in realizing Pakistan, there needs to be a movement for Takmeel-e-Pakistan(Completion of the Pakistan Idea), meaning that the creation was but the first step, and the realization of a just, socially responsible, inclusive,[xxi] progressive, developmental and Sharia-abiding state is the objective – what some term ‘the laboratory of Islam’. It is not a reaction to colonialism as were and are some political theories in India, neither does it stem from colonialist ideas. In fact, because the Pakistan Movement is perceived as having been in reaction to Hindu dominance, rather than British rule, there is little the theory has to offer in relation to colonialism. Neither is this ideology (or any other which I detail here) a product of the state, or have emanated from the state/bureaucracy/elite. The state in Pakistan has been a follower, rather than a propagator, of political thought, reacting to and using the most popular theory of the day to gain legitimacy. And Nazria-e-Pakistan is the most frequently used. The Army, for example, as an organization, has for a long time adopted and espoused this thought – one of the main reasons for its close relationship with the majority of Pakistanis.

The colonial mindset of the Pakistani state and its politics detailed above stand in stark contrast to the most popular strands of political thought.

Another popular theory (albeit less so than the above) has been what I term Deobandiat (not exactly the same as original purely religiously centered Deobandiat). This is an older, but more radical version of Sub-continental political Islam – influenced heavily by Salafi thought in its modern sense. It originated in the Darul Uloom Deoband in India, and gained traction and evolved at first in opposition to the Pakistan Movement and Nazria-e-Pakistan. The original reasoning was of an outright rejection of the concept of territorial nations in Islam, hence its initial opposition to the creation of Pakistan. However, since 1947 the theory (that which exists in Pakistan) has accepted the notion of Pakistan, but is still popular among adherents as a more fundamental and reactive version of Islamic thought. The polarized version of Deobandiat is in the form of the Afghan Taliban and its affiliates.[xxii]Once again, this strand of political thought has little to nothing in relation to colonialism, being grounded in purely religious and cultural reasoning. Neither is there any evidence to show that it was fostered explicitly in opposition to colonial thought, having grown out of opposition to other strains of Islamic thought in Hind.

Other non-religiously inspired political thought also exists and thrives in Pakistan. Socialist thought in Pakistan -Z. A. Bhutto and the early PPP[xxiii]being its most vocal advocates along with luminaries such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz – can trace its ideological concepts to Marxism, the Cold War, and Maoism. However the popularity of this strain in Pakistan came about as a reaction to social conditions in Pakistan – roti, kapra, makaan, Bhutto’s popular slogan, called for the economic uplifting of the poor, not a proletariat revolution against capitalist/colonial elite. This, again, was a reaction to social conditions prevalent in Pakistan at the time, having very little to say about colonial rule. Secular thought in Pakistan is also devoid of any relation to colonialism, being a reaction to more religiously grounded theories, and heavily influenced by Western liberal democratic/populist thought. Though espoused by only very small but wealthy and powerful elite, it is nevertheless another example of the wide and vibrant political scene in Pakistan, independent of any colonial legacies.

These are but a few and the most prominent strands of political thought in Pakistan. There are many other less popular strands and still more which combine many theories. The conclusion though is that none are a legacy of colonial rule. They are grounded in the realities and challenges of modern Pakistan, and inspired by philosophical thinking which has little to do with colonialism. Moreover, unlike the colonial mindset of the state, they are open to debate, interpretation, change, and vibrant (if sometimes violent) discussion.

The question arises as to how such independent political thought can co-exist with and then work within a state whose politics and mindset are of a colonial legacy.

Finally, the role of Islam in the Pakistani state deserves discussion. One of the main arguments by analysts who define Pakistani politics as a legacy of colonial rule is that the Pakistani state has used Islam in the same way that colonial authorities used religion as an instrument of societal control. I agree that the politics of the Pakistani state are a legacy of colonial rule; however this (the Islam question) is not an argument in favor. As stated above, the state in Pakistan has always been a follower of political thought, espousing the dominant ideology of the day. This includes the arguments on the role of Islam and the proper form of Islam, which are arguments in political thought, and do not emanate from the politics of the state. In fact, the Pakistani state could not even if it tried (which it has under Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq – failing miserably); impose a single definition or strain of Islamic thought in Pakistan (though the state does publicly espouse Islamic values in general). This is because, unlike many other geopolitically important Muslim majority countries (with exceptions of course), Pakistan does not impose restrictions on Ijtehad. In many other Muslim majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran (and their spheres of influence), there is a specific strain of Islam and Islamic thought espoused by the state, filtering down to the populace in the form of Taqlid (to follow someone), with restrictions placed on Ijtehad to uphold the state dialogue, and thus control. In Pakistan, perhaps because of the legacy of liberal Muslim rule in Hind, where diversity of thought was required and upheld, no such restrictions exist. Thus, Islamic thought in Pakistan comes from below and makes its way to the top. Diverse strains of thinking emanate from groups, Imams and scholars, and are thus popularized – Islamic thought in Pakistan is a free and competitive market. In this cornucopia of strands of thought, the state (or as often argued, the Army) cannot ever hope to espouse just one brand of Islam. Trying to, is an exercise in futility – there are so many strands of Islamic thought in Pakistan that the state would always be alienating the majority. Therefore, Islamic thought in Pakistan is similar to political thought (when one can distinguish between the two), in that it is independent of the state and its colonial legacy.

In conclusion, the question arises as to how such independent political thought can co-exist with and then work within a state whose politics and mindset are of a colonial legacy. Surely over 68 years independent political thought would have had an impact on changing the colonial nature of the state? The answer is that it has to an extent; however the Pakistani state and its politics are still largely stuck in a colonial mindset. It is not within the scope of this piece to examine why this is. However, I can make some tentative suggestions; (i) that the actual process of governance is not handled by those who exercise independent political thought, but is the purview of the state, namely the bureaucracy, which is a living colonial legacy with a colonial mindset, (ii) that the conflict between the colonial nature of the state and the non-colonial nature of political thought has not been popularized as an issue, and therefore not dealt with directly, (iii) that feudal interests in political parties (which are of a colonial mindset)are too powerful/indispensible for those within those parties with independent political thought, therefore maintaining the status-quo and preventing change,(iv) that, once a political party with independent political thought gains power, the advantages it gains by keeping the status-quo (i.e. through corruption) are too good for it to be motivated to bring change, (v) that the institutional and structural constraints of the parliamentary political system negate the possibility of serious change, (vi) all of the above, or a combination of the above. This list of possible reasons is definitely non-exhaustive, and more analysis is needed to examine why this is the case – providing my initial analysis of the legacy of colonial rule in state politics, and the independence of political thought from colonial influences is found to be valid.

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A researcher and avid reader interested in history, geopolitics and Iqbal studies

Hasan Qureshi

A researcher and avid reader interested in history, geopolitics and Iqbal studies