Book Review: “Pakistan: A Modern History” by Ian Talbot

(Hurst & Company, London – 432 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

Admittedly its birth as a nation state is more recent than most, but it is still surprising that there are not more books devoted to Pakistan’s turbulent history. Although its fierce rivalry with India (as notably played out with the Kashmir conflict and mutually strident testing of nuclear weapons), plus the frequent occurrence of internal military coups and instability, have always ensured a mixture of meddling from, and furrowed brows in, the centres of Western power, it seems that until very recently a large demand for and supply of books for the casual observer has been lacking. Its heavy involvement in the “war on terrorism” at the urging of the United States and the attending world attention being focused upon it will certainly change that. Although it was published in 1998 before recent tumultuous events, Ian Talbot’s scholarly Pakistan: A Modern History is still worth a read, as it seems the more things change in Pakistan, the more they stay the same. While this book is certainly not lacking in intricate detail and analyses regarding major developments in Pakistan’s history, it does tend to lose sight of the broader historical narrative, not helped by a style that is more workmanlike than stimulating.

Talbot is mostly concerned with the complex reasons behind Pakistan’s inability to achieve its potential as a nation state. The authoritarian nature of successive governments and its damaging effects on democratic development is seen as a major stumbling block. While not casting aside the role of authoritarian regimes in Pakistan’s development, Talbot points to the relatively late annexation of north-west India that was to become Pakistan (excluding Bengal or east Pakistan) by the British as a contributing factor, in that under the British, autocratic traditions persisted in order to control the tribal areas, as well as to keep Russian expansionist threats at bay. He cites Pakistan’s cultural diversity as being viewed by the various authoritarian regimes in power as a threat that needed to be firmly controlled, political dissent treated as if a law and order problem, all from the distance and familiarity of the national power centre, Punjab; that east Pakistan was to ultimately break away and become Bangladesh is thus no real surprise. Talbot also sees the socio-economic environment in existence at the time of Pakistan’s birth and the path it had to follow leading up to this point as casting a shadow over its fate. This all combined with a political process replete with powerful families and elites masquerading as political parties, essentially driven by personalities instead of ideas, in a landscape of constantly shifting alliances, with the Damocles Sword of the Military constantly overhead, has resulted in a country full of potential falling short.

The book is split up into four parts, beginning with the Historical Inheritance in place for the formation of the state of Pakistan for Muslims. He then details political developments from Partition in 1947 to the loss of east Bengal (Bangladesh) in 1971, moving on to the rise and fall of the charismatic Zulfikar Bhutto, the impact of General Zia-ul-Haq and his attempt to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state, and the many rises and falls of Benazir Bhutto. He finishes off with the rule of Nawaz Sharif up until 1998 (before he was to be deposed in a military coup by the current President Musharraf). Of course, it wouldn’t be Pakistan without the ghost of the subcontinent’s fractious past hovering over, in the form of Kashmir, keeping tension high with India and constantly draining Pakistan’s budget; this issue is well covered. A nice feature of the book to close on are briefings on Pakistan Political Parties and Organisations, as well as the Biographical Notes, a sort of Who’s Who of Pakistan’s important historical figures and political scene. Current President, General Musharraf, is not listed there in Talbot’s book, but based on the nature of Pakistan over the last 55 years, his will make interesting reading in a future history of this complex nation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *