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  • Comparative Study of Politics in Pakistan and Bangladesh:An Insightful Analysis
  • Nadeem Malik (bio)
William B. Milam. Bangladesh and Pakistan: Flirting with Failure in South Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009 ⋲ 256 pp.

More often than not, the study of South Asia has been compartmentalized into the study of individual countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. A comparative study of these countries is rare. Also rare is analysis of the future of Muslim-majority countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, that are facing the critical problems of poverty, deteriorating law and order, and security. The latter omission is especially striking in contemporary times given the importance of the spread of Islam in South Asia and its effect throughout the world. This book fills the gap. Issues such as nationalism, military domination, the politics of language, the nature of civil-military relations, and religious extremism are addressed with considerable care and sophistication, particularly with reference to Pakistan and Bangladesh. The book is the outcome of a laborious comparative study of the history and evolution of both countries. One of the book's major strengths is that it offers an enormous amount of secondary data that should prove fruitful for researchers conducting further analysis. Being a seasoned diplomat, William Milam's analysis is based on his personal experience as well as on his observations and deep understanding of historical developments in South Asia. The book is accessible and presents a lively portrait of the structure and agency of politics in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Various interesting observations are scattered through the book. For example, both countries had initially attempted to establish a government based on democratic principles that upheld the secular approach of their founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and yet later they seemed to adopt the politics of religion based on undemocratic norms. Religion could not hold the two countries together and proved to be the biggest evidence of the weakness of the "two nation" theory, according to which Muslims in the Indian subcontinent demanded a separate homeland on the basis of their [End Page 174] religion. Also, despite the differences between Pakistan and Bangladesh—the former being a multi-ethnic society and the latter being among the most homogenous developing countries—the feeling of national identity has always been very strong within each. In the case of Pakistan, communalism has been the defining feature of such an identity, whereas in Bangladesh the Awami League upheld a secular view of national identity.

Milam links political Islam with military hegemony in Pakistan and concludes that the character of such hegemony makes prospects for change in the dynamics of political and economic development remote. Moreover, because the nature of the nexus between jihadis and the military is still ambiguous, it is not clear whether the military is truly willing to purge Pakistan of extremist forces. Pakistan's future, therefore, might be dominated by chaos and the further deterioration of law and order. On the contrary, in Bangladesh, where jihadis have yet to find ways to become prominent and the military is relatively less inclined to hang on to power forever, the country's future might be a little different with regard to democratic development.

Though the book provides a comparative history of endogenous factors that led to military domination in Pakistan and Bangladesh, it shies away from analyzing the exogenous factors. Any examination of political developments in South Asia without an adequate study of the role of the international community in shaping the region's political situation remains incomplete. For example, several scholars have noted that in the Cold War period, military build-up in several states in the developing world was an outcome of the U.S. attempt to contain Communism. The United States entered into military alliances with these countries and transferred massive amounts of military hardware to shore up their defense capabilities. Despite major human rights violations in these countries, the United States and its Western allies continued to support military regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Due to its geopolitical situation vis-à-vis West Asia, Pakistan was considered to be a front-line state in the Cold War. During the Afghan war, Islamic fundamentalism was...


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pp. 174-177
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