Historical simulacrum: ‘Bangladesh and Pakistan’ by William B Milam

William B Milam served as the US ambassador to Bangladesh from 1990 to 1993, during the first period of civilian rule after the rule of General H M Ershad. He also served as US Ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001, his last assignment before retirement. Needless to say, both of these periods were defining moments in the history of the two countries, and Milam had a dramatic front-row seat. During his time in Bangladesh, the diplomat witnessed the trials and tribulations of the first post-dictatorship Awami League government, led by a daughter desperate to rehabilitate a father and his controversial legacy. In Pakistan, Milam came in at a time when another daughter with, perhaps, a similar set of goals had failed at her second attempt in government; indeed, the merry-go-round of civilian governments in Pakistan was coming to an end at that time, ushering in what would be a decade of military rule. Its no wonder that Milam would be haunted by the similarities in the politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and would be tempted to write what amounts to a comparative history of two nation states that for a while enjoyed a common history.

After all of the rhetoric regarding 'Af-Pak' of recent months, it is a refreshing change to read about Pakistan in comparison with some other Southasian country. Milam's subtitle, "Flirting with failure", however, is depressing; his prognosis on Pakistan is indeed bleak. Bangladesh, meanwhile, fares a bit better, not least because of its appreciable progress in social development, largely fuelled by a vibrant NGO sector. Milam is particularly concerned about the extremist threat in Pakistan, and asserts that extremism is on the rise in Bangladesh as well, though nowhere near the scale that it has reached in the western country. Most of the book deals with how both countries got to where they stood sometime in mid-2008. (Milam's epilogue mentions President Pervez Musharraf's resignation of August 2008, but does not go much beyond that.) He does weave an interesting story.

That both Bangladesh and Pakistan have been characterised by periods of military and civilian rule, which appear to alternate with almost frightening regularity, is well known. Milam's contribution lies in eking out the key characteristics of each period of civilian or military rule in the two countries, and juxtaposing them. The author begins his analysis with a recap of the joint history as a unified Pakistan, emphasising that both have been "schizophrenic about their national identity". For Pakistan, this confusion stems from the debate on whether the country was conceived as an Islamic state, or as a homeland for Muslims. For Bangladesh, the identity crisis stems from different definitions of nationalism, or the struggle for supremacy between the Bengali identity and Bangladeshi nationalism. Broadly, the debates in both countries centre around a tussle for power between religious and secular elements.

Milam then goes into a descriptive mode, chronicling the rise to power of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh. While acknowledging the former's prowess in foreign policy, he is critical of Bhutto's domestic policies, particularly his suppression of dissent. (Though on this Milam should have checked his facts better: Bhutto did not dismiss the provincial government in Sindh, but rather that of Balochistan. Oddly, the author does correct himself later in the book.) Across the expanse of India, Bangladesh under Mujib was going through a turbulent time similarly triggered by the man at the helm, with the initial jubilation that greeted Mujib's ascent to power giving way to increased disillusionment with his attempts to turn the country into a repressive, one-party state under a presidency.

Legacy of the Zias
Bhutto and Mujib both gave way to the respective General Zias (ul-Haq and ur Rehman). In Milam's view, these two left markedly differing legacies. While Zia ul-Haq had no saving graces in Milam's view, Ziaur Rehman was the epitome of a "benign dictator", who may have saved Bangladesh from an internecine civil war. The reality, however, was that General Ershad was more in the mould of General Zia ul-Haq, with his vicious suppression of political activity, his courting of rightwing parties and groups, and his attempts to establish a presidential form of government in Bangladesh.

Civilian rule returned to Pakistan in late 1988 and to Bangladesh in early 1991, and both countries thereafter witnessed a musical chairs of two major political parties alternately coming to power for the next decade. While the degree of confrontation in Bangladesh was more violent (with frequent strikes and street protests), the antipathy that the two major political parties in Pakistan exhibited was no less vicious. Institutions suffered in both countries; but from 1999 onwards, the political histories of the two countries, which till then had seemed remarkably similar, began to diverge. The military could not stay away from politics for long in Pakistan, and returned to power in October 1999 for another nearly decade-long stint. In Bangladesh, the civilian set-up remained in place till January 2007, and came to be replaced by a military-backed interim government that seemed to be sincere in its desire to return the country to civilian rule, through fresh elections, as soon as possible.

Unlike in Pakistan, where power had to be wrested from President Musharraf, Bangladesh's President Fakhruddin Ahmed worked to lay the basis for a free and fair election during his two-year term of office. Elections were held in both countries in 2008 – in February in Pakistan, and in December in Bangladesh. In both countries, parties that were in power in the early 1970s – and who were led by enigmatic, charismatic leaders who both met a violent end – have returned to power.

While their individual political experiences are surprisingly similar, Bangladesh and Pakistan have set off on different trajectories with regard to economic and social development, as Milam details. He points out that Bangladesh probably never deserved the epithet of being the "basket case" of the world, and is fast leaving this reputation behind with strong gains in social indicators, which are likely to boost long term economic growth. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been characterised by "growth without development," posting relatively high GDP growth rates in conjunction with social indicators that are below the average for countries at similar levels of development.

Bangladeshi NGOs have had much to do with the country's social development gains, and interestingly, began to gain ground during the 1982-1990 government of General Ershad, who was hostile to their activity. They have flourished, and shown appreciable results in spite of lack of support from the state. While acknowledging the role of NGOs in Bangladesh's development, Milam also discusses the dissenting view on growing NGO activity in Bangladesh, which posits that the state has come to abdicate its social development responsibilities as a consequence. Meanwhile, Pakistan's civil society which has grown in stature in recent years, has not managed to bring about a similar social revolution. He is also critical of micro-credit schemes in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, pointing out that these may not be the panacea that they are held up to be.

For Milam, the key reason for the discrepancy in attitudes towards social development in Bangladesh and Pakistan is the heterogeneity in Pakistani society, which breeds a culture of confrontation. The lack of vision of Pakistani leaders, who have failed to "build a nation from a collection of competing nationalities," has perpetuated the problem. The relative lack of success of Pakistani NGOs is also attributed to this culture of confrontation, as well as the poor social position of women (compared to Bengali society) and the fact that NGOs in Pakistan are almost entirely dependent on donor funds. In addition to the divergence in social development, the other major difference between the two countries, in the author's view, lies in the attitudes of their respective militaries. In the case of Bangladesh, the military appears to have broken out of its early 1990s view of itself as the ultimate guarantor of state ideology. The January 2007 takeover was a break in the political process, but the military appeared to be in no mood to hold on to power for a longer term than its two year stint. In Pakistan, in contrast, the military is unlikely to relinquish its political pride of place.

It remains to be seen whether the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will fulfil the promise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's early days, and indeed whether the Awami League will work to achieve the vision of Bangladesh espoused by Mujib in the heady days of newly won independence. Milam seems to know the answer.  His vision of Pakistan's future is gloomy. He brings up the familiar bogeys – the possibility of the government being taken over by extremists (whose agenda is furthered by Pakistan's lack of progress on social development), the likely inability of the government to arrest the ongoing economic decline and the fallout of the judicial crisis. He worries about the return of Bangladesh's highly destructive political culture, but holds out more hope for that country, largely because of the strides it has made in terms of improving its social indicators, and the subtle change in the military mindset.

A year after Milam's narrative ends, Bangladesh seems to be living up to his expectations, but Pakistan may also have pulled back from the precipice – at least, so goes the fervent hope for many. While there is little doubt that Pakistani society has become progressively more intolerant and discriminatory over the past three decades, the recent confrontation between the state and extremist groups appears to have the full backing of the people who have rejected a retrogressive political order. Also, since Milam's book was published, there is little doubt that the Pakistani state has moved to rein in the growing militancy. No one expects Pakistan's myriad and complex problems to resolve themselves in a hurry, but there is a faint hint of a positive change. That being said, Pakistan's long term development prospects appear less bright than that of its former eastern wing. Perhaps Islamabad's rulers would do well to analyse positive trends in Bangladesh, and seek help in replicating the same at home.

~ Safiya Aftab is a research fellow with Strategic and Economic Policy Research in Islamabad.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian