European explorers first arrived in the area late in the fifteenth century. By the 1800s, the British had become the dominant European presence on the subcontinent. In 1857 the British took over the administration of India, ruling it through a mixed system of direct control and indirect rule.
Muslim nationalists in India established the All-India Muslim League in 1906. As agitation for independence grew, Muslim leaders became increasingly concerned about ensuring the political rights of the Muslims in a Hindu-dominated state. Arguing that India was both a Hindu and a Muslim state, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League political party, believed that Muslim rights would be endangered in a Hindu-majority nation. The solution, therefore, was a separate state for the Muslim population.
Consequently, Pakistan was carved out of British India and became a state on 14 August 1947. It originally consisted of two sections—West Pakistan, which is the current state of Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh—separated by roughly 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Leaders of the fledgling nation confronted many internal challenges. The partition had left Pakistan with a shortage of trained personnel and resources to engage in the nation-building process. This dilemma was compounded by the dislocation and communal violence that accompanied partition, which had left between 500,000 and 1 million dead. Soon after independence, Pakistan fought its first war with India over the disputed Jammu-Kashmir territory (commonly known as Kashmir). Hostilities came to an end in 1948 with a cease-fire supervised by the United Nations (UN).
The transfer of power established Pakistan as a parliamentary democracy, with Jinnah as the first governor-general. The Constituent Assembly (a vestige of the prepartition Indian Constituent Assembly) was charged with drafting a new constitution. Political instability was common in this first phase of Pakistani political history, which lasted from 1947 to 1958. Seven prime ministers served during this period. Pakistan also lost its two preeminent leaders: Jinnah, who died in August 1948, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated in 1951. In 1954, Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad dissolved the Constituent Assembly and placed the government in the hands of a Cabinet of Talent comprised of powerful civil and military officials.
In 1956 Pakistan finally promulgated its first constitution, which established the country as an Islamic Republic, created the office of the president, and subordinated the office of the prime minister to the presidency. Those who had hoped for a more thorough Islamization of the republic were disappointed. The struggle over the role of Islam in the nation would continue to be an issue, however. From independence onward, ethnic unrest and provincial challenges to central authority complicated the nation-building process. For example, in 1956 Pakhtun leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province threatened to agitate for a separate Pakhtun homeland. Military force had to be used against the khan of Kalat in Balochistan, who declared his independence from Pakistani control.
The period of parliamentary democracy ended with the imposition of martial law in 1958 by President Iskandar Mizra (1955–1958). Just weeks later, Muhammad Ayub Khan overthrew Mizra. This second phase of Pakistani political history, from 1958 to 1971, witnessed military rule under Presidents Ayub Khan (1958–1969) and Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan (1969–1971).
Ayub Khan, who considered himself a reformer, changed family and marriage laws and brought marriage and divorce under government control. To encourage industrial development, the government introduced tax incentives and made credit more available. Rapid population growth and crop failures, however, caused recurrent food shortages. Ayub Khan introduced land reform to further limit the size of single holdings and instituted price controls. The government also began a Green Revolution by introducing high-yield seeds and selling public land to individual farmers. By the late 1960s, the Green Revolution had yielded positive results in the Punjab. Ayub Khan also introduced Basic Democracy, a five-tier system of representative institutions ranging from union councils at the village level to a provincial development council for each province. Elected members of the village councils were charged with drafting a new constitution, which was promulgated in 1962.
Ayub Khan continued Pakistan's close relationship with the United States and benefited from U.S. economic and military assistance. At the same time, he astutely pursued cordial relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which resulted in cultural and trade exchanges as well as Chinese aid to Pakistan.
In 1965, hostilities again broke out between Pakistan and India over the issues of Kashmir and water distribution from the Indus River. In 1969, as opposition to his rule grew, an ailing Ayub Khan resigned in favor of General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. The opposition had been fueled in part by the failure to liberate Kashmir. But there was also a growing desire to restore democratic rule.
Yahya Khan scrapped the Basic Democracy introduced by his predecessor, abolished indirect elections for president, introduced a representation system based on population, and promised a return to constitutional government. In December 1970 the Awami League posted a stunning electoral victory in East Pakistan and won a majority in the National Assembly. In the West, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won a majority. Neither Yahya Khan nor Bhutto wished to have Mujibur-Rahman of the Awami League as prime minister, and both acted to prevent the National Assembly from convening. This obstructionism enraged Bengalis in East Pakistan, who were already unhappy with what they perceived as West Pakistani governmental callousness toward the suffering caused by recent floods in the East. Bengalis also objected to the imposition of Urdu as the official language. Yahya Khan responded to the street agitation by ordering a military crackdown in the East. Developments careened toward civil war as Easterners demanded secession.
Unrest in the East soon brought Pakistan into another war with India. Refugees from East Pakistan, both Hindus and Muslims, fled to the neighboring Indian state of Bengal. In early December 1971, Indira Gandhi ordered an invasion of East Pakistan, and Pakistani forces quickly surrendered. What had been East Pakistan now became the independent state of Bangladesh.
Military defeat and national humiliation triggered Yahya Khan's resignation, ushering in the next period of Pakistani history that promised a respite from military rule. Bhutto became president (1971–1977) and restored civilian rule for the first time since 1958. In 1973 Bhutto introduced a new constitution, which established a parliamentary government that divided responsibilities between a largely ceremonial president and a powerful prime minister. Bhutto himself now assumed the role of prime minister. The constitution established Islam as a state religion and aligned all civil laws accordingly.
In the 1970s Bhutto pursued a far more socialist developmental strategy than what had persisted since independence. The government nationalized entities in the agricultural, industrial, and financial sectors. Sluggish growth and Bhutto's failure—and perhaps reluctance—to break the grip of the powerful landowning community meant that his economic and social promises remained unrealized, however.
Popular agitation and suspicion of voter fraud after the 1977 elections sparked widespread unrest. This opened the door to yet another period of martial law. General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and his fellow military officers ousted Bhutto and dissolved the government. Bhutto was executed in 1979.
Zia, who held power during 1977–1988, furthered the transformation of Pakistan into an Islamic state. He created an Islamic judicial system and banned political parties, having found no reference to them in Islamic teachings. He also passed ordinances discriminating against women. In part, he hoped to unify the nation by having people rally behind the protection of their Islamic heritage. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 helped strengthen Zia's message of endangered Islam, so Pakistan began to provide aid to resistance fighters in Afghanistan. Other countries, principally the United States and China, also used Pakistan as a conduit for funneling weapons and aid to the mujahideen (freedom fighters) in Afghanistan.
Martial law was ended in 1985, with Zia becoming president. But he amended the constitution to shift the balance of power to that office. He could now dismiss the prime minister, the provincial governors, and the national and provincial legislatures. Zia died in 1988 in an airplane crash. During the 1980s, he and his military advisors began to reverse some of the nationalization policies of the 1970s. Government deregulation and economic liberalization policies encouraged greater private investments. This process continued through the 1990s to the present. In December 1988, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, became prime minister, the first woman leader of a Muslim nation.
The current Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, came to power through a military coup in 1999 and returned the country to military rule. In the post–Cold War period, Pakistan has garnered attention as a close U.S. ally in the war on terror. This has made the country a beneficiary of generous U.S. economic and military aid.
Soo Chun Lu
Bose, Sugata, and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, and Political Economy London: Routledge, 1998.; Dixit, J. N. India-Pakistan in War and Peace. London: Routledge, 2002.; McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War on the Periphery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.; Ziring, Lawrence. Pakistan: At the Crosscurrents of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.