[This is an article from the latest special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
When, in 1947, what was then known as ‘the Indian subcontinent’ was partitioned and the dominion of Pakistan was created, the population of its two wings – East and West – was considered to be approximately 70 million. The first census to be conducted after independence in 1951 estimated the population in West Pakistan to be over 33 million; by 1961 this had risen to nearly 42 million (with another estimated 50 million living in East Pakistan); in 1972, by which time statistics were no longer recorded for East Pakistan – which had seceded to become independent Bangladesh – the population in the West was recorded as being nearly 65.5 million. Less than ten years later this had again risen – to nearly 85 million.
With a hiatus in census taking until 1998, the next recorded statistic of Pakistan’s population was over 132 million, revealing an increase of almost 60 per cent since the census 26 years previously; by 2017 the population had further increased to nearly 208 million. The next census, due to be held in December 2022, is predicted to reveal a population of around 232 million, confirming Pakistan’s position as the second largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and before India.
It goes without saying that such a huge population increase in a country which has retained the same territorial land space, and consequently same resources, has had a dramatic effect on the country’s social, political and economic development. According to the World Bank, poverty in Pakistan rose from 4.4 % to 5.4% in 2020, with over two million falling below the poverty line; 40% of Pakistani households have to endure moderate to severe food insecurity, with the situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic; 34% of Pakistan’s population live on an income of $3.2 a day.
Although literacy rates are recorded as having risen (from 17.9% in 1951 to 62.8% in 2021) Pakistan still occupies a low position in literacy league-tables in South Asia: less than 50% of its population has the ability ‘to read and understand simple text in any language from a newspaper or magazine, write a simple letter and perform basic mathematical calculation (i.e. counting and addition/subtraction),’ as redefined by the government in 2017.
For a country which embarked on its future with such high hopes – as a haven and homeland for some (but clearly not all) of the Muslims of South Asia – these statistics are not easy reading, especially when natural disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in Northern Pakistan in 2005, the apocalyptic floods of 2022 (preceded by serious floods in 2010) have set the country’s development back still further.
Institutional instability has also retarded economic growth. In its comparatively short history, Pakistan has had 23 changes of prime minister, and a 34-year period when the country was under some form of military rule. There have been three military dictators and one military ‘chief executive’. Only one government has succeeded in completing its term of office and offering itself up for re-election. There have been assassinations, widespread terrorist attacks and the fallout from religious extremism.
Added to this, Pakistan’s development has been affected by its relations with its neighbours; at no time in its history has Pakistan managed to establish a durable relationship with neighbouring India. The dispute which arose at partition over the future of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (together with other minor disagreements) has meant that the dominant characteristic of their relationship is mistrust. In the 75 years since independence they have fought four wars; given the continuing hostility, a significant proportion of Pakistan’s general government expenditure is spent on the military, which includes maintaining a nuclear arsenal.
Despite shared cultural and religious beliefs, an ambivalent relationship with Afghanistan has meant that Pakistan has never been able fully to benefit from its pivotal geographical location linking Central and South Asia. While retaining cordial links with Iran, the two countries have differing views over foreign policy, notably Pakistan’s closer relationship with the US and Saudi Arabia.
As a result of unstable relations with its immediate neighbours, Pakistan’s chief ally in the region is the ideologically-mismatched Peoples Republic of China, which, despite Pakistan’s insecure environment, has made huge investments in the country, the most high profile of which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and construction of a port at Gwadar, west of Karachi. Such a friendship has however meant that Pakistan has been less vociferous about Chinese human rights abuses in relation to the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, while strongly condemning human rights abuses against Muslims in India.
Remarkably, despite the tremendous difficulties and challenges, Pakistan – a construct, carved out of former united India, which commentators in 1947 thought might not last – has survived, with visitors praising the Pakistani people’s legendary hospitality. As a tourist destination, with eight of the top 20 highest peaks in the world, and some of the most spectacular scenery throughout the country, Pakistan also remains high on travellers’ itineraries. What well-wishers earnestly hope is that, during its next 75 years, the country’s political institutions stabilise, that it can improve its neighbourly relations in order to emerge as a geo-economic hub to enable its citizens to prosper, and that the military can withdraw fully into their barracks.
Victoria Schofield is an historian and commentator on international affairs, with specialist knowledge of South Asia. She is also the Chair of the Round Table Editorial Board.