Pakistan : History


The region of Pakistan was one of the cradles of civilisation. Stone-age hunter-gatherers lived on the Potohar plateau and in the Soan Valley in northern Punjab 300,000 or more years ago. Excavations on the Balochistan plateau show a more advanced culture which flourished from 4000 to 2000 BCE. At Kot Diji in the Khairpur district, an early bronze age culture developed in this period. These early civilisations reached their peak in the Indus valley cities, of which Harappa is the most notable. These societies had mastered town planning and pictographic writing.

In 327 BCE Alexander the Great invaded with his Macedonian army. Later, Mauryans from India ruled the northern Punjab area, to be replaced by Bactrian Greeks from Afghanistan and central Asian tribes. Different religions prevailed in turn: Buddhism (under the Mauryans), Hinduism and, with Arab conquest in the eighth century, Islam.

Two main principalities emerged under Arab rule, that of al- Mansurah and that of Multan. The Ghaznarid sultans gained ascendancy in Punjab in the 11th century. The subsequent ascendancy of the Moghuls, who originated in Central Asia, lasted from 1536 to 1707; their rule lingered nominally until 1857. They established a sophisticated imperial administration and left a rich legacy of forts and walled cities, gardens and gateways, mosques and tombs.

In the early 17th century European traders arrived on the subcontinent. Through the East India Company, the British became the dominant force. After the unsuccessful uprising against Britain of 1857, the British took direct control. Slowly a national Muslim identity emerged, championed by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–89). The All India Muslim League was founded in 1907.

As the subcontinent moved towards independence, it became clear that Hindu and Muslim interests could not be reconciled. The campaign to establish an independent Muslim state came to prominence in the 1920s and 30s. It was led by the philosopher and poet Mohammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Pakistan was created, as an Islamic state, out of the partition of the UK’s Indian Empire, at independence in August 1947. It originally consisted of two parts, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), separated by 1,600 km of Indian territory. Partition was followed by war with India over Kashmir and the mass migration of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs to resettle within the new borders, an upheaval which led to violence, financial loss and death on a large scale. With the arrival of Indian Muslims and departure of Pakistan’s Hindus and Sikhs, Pakistan became an almost entirely Muslim society. Jinnah, who is honoured as the Quaid-i-Azam, or great leader, died in 1948.

In 1956, Pakistan became a federal republic. It has been under military rule for long periods. Its first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. In 1958, martial law was declared and political parties abolished. General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan became President in 1960 and allowed a form of guided ‘basic democracy’. However, failure to win the 1965 war against India and accusations of nepotism and corruption undermined his position. In the east, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman voiced the grievances of the Bengali population. Ayub Khan resigned in 1969 and power was taken over by General Yahya Khan, who in December 1970 held the first national elections in independent Pakistan.

Mujib and the Awami League won an electoral majority in Pakistan’s general election on a platform demanding greater autonomy for East Pakistan. At the same time Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) gained a majority in the West. Despite Mujib’s victory, he was prevented by the Pakistan authorities from becoming Prime Minister of the combined state and the Awami League then issued their own plans for a new constitution for an independent state in the East. As a result of the military intervention that ensued, civil war broke out in the eastern region in 1971; the Indian army intervened in support of the Bengalis; Pakistan forces withdrew and Bangladesh became an independent state. In 1972 Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth but rejoined in 1989.

Under a new constitution introduced in 1973, Bhutto became Prime Minister. He undertook agrarian reform and the nationalisation of large sections of industry and the financial sector. In July 1977 the army, under General Zia ul-Haq, intervened in the urban unrest. Zia declared martial law and arrested Bhutto who was convicted, after a controversial trial, of conspiring to murder a political opponent. Despite international appeals, he was hanged in April 1979. Zia promised elections within 90 days, but ruled without them until his death. He assumed the presidency and embarked on a programme of Islamisation. Martial law and the ban on political parties were lifted in 1985, Bhutto’s daughter Benazir returned from exile to lead the PPP and Zia died in a plane crash in August 1988.

Elections in November 1988 brought the PPP to power in coalition with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). However, in October 1989 the MQM left the coalition and in August 1990 Bhutto was dismissed by the President Ghulam Ishaque Khan and charged with corruption. The National Assembly was dissolved and a caretaker leader installed until Islami Jamhoori Ittehad led by Nawaz Sharif won a decisive election victory in October 1990. Sharif pursued economic reforms and privatisation and instituted Sharia (Islamic) law until 1993 when President and Prime Minister resigned under pressure from the military, making way for fresh elections which brought Benazir Bhutto back to power by a small majority.

In November 1996, President Sardar Farooq Khan Leghari, prompted by the army high command and opposition leaders, used the eighth amendment to the constitution, and dissolved the National Assembly, bringing down the Bhutto government and alleging corruption, financial incompetence, and human rights violations. New elections were held in February 1997. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – previously the main component of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad – won 134 seats in the National Assembly and Sharif became Prime Minister. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party retained only 18 seats. In April 1997, Sharif was able to gain the PPP’s support to achieve the two- thirds majority necessary to repeal the eighth amendment, ending the President’s ability to dissolve the National Assembly. He also took over from the President the power to appoint Supreme Court judges and military chiefs-of-staff.

In October 1999, Sharif ordered the dismissal of Army Chief of Staff General Pervez Musharraf, and refused permission to land for the commercial aircraft in which he was returning to Karachi (from an official visit to Sri Lanka). The army countermanded the Prime Minister’s orders and immediately seized power, dismissing the government and arresting Sharif. Musharraf justified his actions as necessary to restore both the economy and the deteriorating political situation. Pending the restoration of democracy the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) suspended Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth.


The dispute with India over Kashmir escalated sharply in 1999, when militants with Pakistani military support crossed the Line of Control at Kargil and engaged in major battles with Indian forces. More than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting. In July 1999, Pakistan finally agreed to withdraw from Indian-controlled territory, but the state of tension, which had been heightened by the nuclear testing of 1998 (India had detonated five nuclear devices on 11 and 13 May 1998 and Pakistan responded with six on 28 and 30 May), persisted.

At the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 2001 President General Pervez Musharraf attended a summit in India, focusing on their dispute over Kashmir. Although there was no substantive outcome, this first face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two countries since 1999 was characterised by a new interest on both sides in seeking a resolution to this long- standing problem. However, by May 2002 India had mobilised a vast army along the Line of Control and the two countries were again on the brink of war.

Tension eased considerably in October 2002 when India reduced its number of troops along the Line of Control; diplomatic relations were restored in August 2003 and a ceasefire along the Line of Control was agreed and took effect from 26 November 2003. Peace talks between India and Pakistan began in 2004, marking a historic advance in relations between the two countries. The talks led to the restoration of communication links and a range of confidence-building measures, including co- ordinated relief efforts in the aftermath of the October 2005 earthquake.

Constitutionally, the Prime Minister serves as the chief adviser to President of Pakistan on critical matters and plays an influential role in appointment in each branch of the military leadership as well as ensuring the control of the military through chairman joint chiefs. Powers of the Prime Minister have significantly grown with a delicate system of the check and balance by each branch. The position was absent during years of 1960–73 and 1977–85 due to imposed martial law. In each of these periods, the military junta led by the President had the powers of the Prime Minister.

The incumbent and current holder in this position is Imran Khan, elected in this capacity after the nationwide general elections held in August 2018.