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Political Islam, Politics of Identity, Ethnic Nationalism and the Centralized State – By Raza Habib Raja

The selective way of presenting history in Pakistan conveniently ignores the fact that at its creation, there were two large sometimes contrasting and sometimes overlapping movements. The first was primarily centred around Muslim Identity and tried to actually bargain a better position for its bearers. This movement though ended up in carving a separate homeland for the Muslims, nevertheless did not have that strong separatist thrust at least in the beginning.

However, the Islamic identity itself was not the only identity assumed by Muslims as strong ethnic nationalist tendencies existed particularly in the region which later became Pakistan. Thus the ethnic nationalist movements in NWFP and Baluchistan existed even before the partition. Let’s not forget that NWFP and Baluchistan were not totally comfortable when they “opted” for Pakistan. At best their support for Pakistan was tepid. West Pakistan at its creation was a multiethnic region with strong individual demands for greater autonomy based on linguistic and ethnic lines. The residents were largely Muslims but at the same time they also gave importance to their ethnic linguistic identities. East Pakistan had a more or less uniform language and culture and at that point supported Pakistan as they perceived the creation of that state as synonymous to sufficient degree of autonomy.

One thing grossly overlooked by the establishment is that ethnic based nationalism flourishes and can even manifest into separatist movement if the state creates this impression that it is biased. Nationalism is not merely preservation of identity; it is very much intertwined with the concept of state. If state is perceived as unjust then nationalists will try to create their own state and thus would try to secede.  Ernest Gellener actually defines nationalism in the context of injustice. The deprived and excluded, if belonging to some common ethnicity, will revolt and will form nationalist expression built around that ethnicity and may end up striving for a state of their own.

Another important fact is that, identities based on linguistic cum ethnic lines cannot be made to disappear through superimposition  or playing up the religious factor particularly when discrimination and exclusion is based on such lines. Yes being a Muslim is an important part of the identity, but at the same time so is the ethnicity and language, and the latter would assume supremacy in the environment of discrimination, whether real or perceived.

Keeping this situation in mind, where five major ethnic nationalities existed with a strong tendency to demand a sufficient degree of economic, social and cultural autonomy, the best bet the keep the state of Pakistan intact was to allow sufficient autonomy at the provincial  level to ensure that ethnic expression was not stifled. However, here came the crucial error. The Pakistani establishment at that time and ever since has assumed that allowing provincial autonomy and greater ethnic expression coupled with decentralization would weaken the federation. Moreover, it erroneously assumed that the two nation theory negated fostering of regional identities.

These two assumptions have accounted for the various ideological, political and administrative missteps which the state has taken over the years to “tackle” the issue of ethnic diversity and nationalism. Instead of accommodating ethnic diversity the central idea has been to negate it through various means.

As pointed out quite eloquently by Mr. Stephen Cohen in his book “The Idea of Pakistan” that Pakistani leaders have not fully grasped that in an ethnically diverse state most politics is of identity  and closely linked to issues of pride, status, jobs and social equality.  They seem convinced that ethno-linguistic demands are an economic problem, not a political, problem, and if other means fail, a military problem.

There are a wide range of administrative, political as well as ideological blunders which the largely Punjab dominated centre and establishment have committed over the past 60 years and with devastating results. These blunders have proven to be counterproductive to the original aim of keeping the state intact in a smooth manner and have created alienation in the other ethnicities. But the ill effects go beyond harming the harmonious relations between the ethnicities. These have actually had catastrophic effect on the other aspects also.

The ideological drive which places a strong emphasis on Isalmization actually also tries to counter the issue of ethnic identities. The aim has been to ensure a strong centre as it has been viewed critical for the integration of the state. The policy of Islamization has not been carried out to radicalize the population but chiefly as a political tool to subdue nationalistic forces. Even state sponsored talibanization was partly done to diffuse Pushtun ethnic identity and amalgamate it into state preferred Sunni Muslim Identity. Needless to say that it has produced catastrophic results and continues to produce such results.

In fact we have not learnt anything from the history and instead of trying to address ethnic nationalist demands have continued to counter it by efforts to play up the Islamic factor to diffuse ethnic identity and demands. The Islamic drive became more vehement after the secession of East Pakistan.  Instead of getting to the root of the problem which was OVER CENTRALIZATION AND PUNJAB’S DOMINANCE, our response has been to play up Islamic identity in order to overcome the ethnic forces. The fundamental assumption is that ethnic demands would weaken the state and therefore if ethnic identity can be “replaced” or at least superseded by Islamic identity, the state would survive.

Of course ideological thrust on fostering Islamic identity has been carried out to chiefly supplement the administrative, political and economic set up in which the centre dominates.

Pakistan has in fact continued with the colonial structure with minor amendments to “adjust” it to its ground realities. This structure with a centralized bureaucracy, powerful feudal structure, huge powers vested in the centre and a large army is chiefly designed to ensure a powerful centre. One has to go into pre partition times to understand about the structure and rationale of this brand of state structure.

The British created a new breed of Feudal lords with proper legal title while retaining monopoly on the sole use of violence as coercive measure. This clever tactic insulated the populace from the state as it created a layer while ensuring that  monopoly of violence (state’s coercive power). The landlord while legal owner of the land had to exclusively rely on a centrist state to tackle with any trouble at the local level. Thus state eventually evolved as a mere enforcer rather than a body responsive to the local concerns. Its prime concern by design was ensuring authority of the centre.

On a broader level the state was structured with powers vested in the centre and provinces were to be ruled with limited autonomy. The act of 1935 which also became the source of inspiration for all the subsequent acts was again centrist in orientation. These two important characteristics which were designed by British, a foreign ruler, to ensure “insensitive” hegemony of the centre and Pakistan’s establishment as well as political class with centrists tendencies continued to persist with it. The post colonial state is actually an extension of the colonial state but with the changed central government. This structure was deliberately allowed to continue to ensure preservation of a centre oriented State. This structure is bound to create resentment at the local/provincial level and is designed for the IMPERSONAL kind of ruling.

In this structure the centre more or less controls the revenue and expenditure. And the centre is dominated by Punjab. The population wise allocation of revenue and Punjab’s dominance in the “establishment” institutions such as civil services, judiciary and above all armed forces has created resentment and given rise to grievances. The revenue and resource allocation is highly controversial and automatically gives rise to feelings of exclusion which invariably will be manifested in strong tides of nationalism and occasional secession based political violence. The revenue generated from other provinces ends up being spent on Punjab in disproportionate basis. Likewise the royalties from resource usage of smaller provinces do not proportionally match up the benefits derived from such usage. The resource rich Baluchistan despite enabling Pakistan to save billions of dollars because of natural gas gets paltry amount of royalty in return. It remains a poor province despite benefitting Pakistan a lot. If today there is a strong resentment in Baluchistan’s middleclass, it arises from these grave injustices not due to so called grand conspiracies of foreign powers.

The current structure is skewed, whether deliberately or inadvertently, in favour of Punjab and hence not surprisingly the identity of Punjab’s middleclass is strongly reminiscent of official version of what constitutes a Pakistani. The other provinces increasingly identify themselves on ethnic lines even though all may not be harbouring secessionist aspirations.

Moreover, several blunders have been committed in the past to ensure preservation of the dominance of the privileged centre. One was the tactless imposition of one unit, which in the name of administrative “efficiency” tried to subdue the ethnic-linguistic expressions within the mould of governance. One unit scheme was a disaster and effectively sealed the fate of Pakistan unity. It ripped open the already smouldering wounds and needlessly aggravated the situation eventually leading to dismemberment of the country in 1970.

The administrative blunders have always been supplemented with violent and unconstitutional methods of dealing with the nationalist forces. The centrist tendencies manifested in violence as Bengalis were crushed using military, a pattern which has repeatedly been used. The culture has developed where autonomy if voiced is construed as a danger to the state and is handled with force. We did not learn the lessons with Bangladesh and repeated the same with Baluchistan repeatedly. Baluchistan has literally experienced several uprisings and brutal retaliations from the state. The ongoing insurgency is not the first such insurgency as it has been preceded by insurgencies in 1958, 1960s and 1973-77. And the provincial governments have also been dismissed and at times on the explicit charge of “conspiracy to dismember Pakistan”.

Right now as the Pakistan is fighting for its existence and bearing the brunt of its ideological blunder of promoting political Islam to tackle ethnic diversity, the time has come for us to learn our lessons. The foremost lesson is that dissent can only be addressed by addressing the root causes which are often emanating from exclusion and discrimination. Use of ideological engineering and tactics of coercion and intimidation will not strengthen the federation but weaken it.

Another lesson which needs to be learnt and particularly by democracy skeptic Punjabi middleclass, is that an ethnically diverse country needs democracy even if it means scarifying governance. Ethnic diversity needs consensus at every step and the way it has evolved in Pakistan the need to negotiate and renegotiate the relationship terms between the provinces will increase with time. Only democracy provides the framework as well as the forum to do so. Only democracy provides the mechanism which can tap the voices of the provinces and project them for discourse at the national level.

Therefore this nonsensical yearning for army rule has to stop. Armed forces have always dealt with coercion and since they largely hail from Punjab, they have only succeeded in instilling hatred in the smaller provinces against it. While media and urban middleclass of Pakistan have been lynching the PPP government at the top of their voices, the party actually deserves praise at least on provincial autonomy front.

Sourse: Pakteahouse

About the author

Ali Arqam


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  • It’s true that we need unity more than ever; nationalism is good, but ethnic nationalism gives birth to separatist movements, which is not healthy for the integrity of a country.

  • They find it very hard to change their mindset because a small percentage of the officers are genuine jihadists and a small percentage is more than enough to manipulate a large army when the larger group of morons has no intellectually robust counter-ideology. The way it works is this: Moron A (lets call him Musharraf) is perfectly happy to make suitable changes in the plan when the Americans (whom he admires and whose bullshitters like Kissinger and Nixon he reads at bedtime as if they were world-changing philosophers) tell him that it is in his best interest to do so. But the jihadists (who know his kind very well) whisper in his ear about the unity of the nation and the army and the almighty two-nation theory and the “complex strategic threat from India”, and he has no coherent argument to present in return. The only argument he CAN make, sounds like treason to Islam even to his own ears. He is trapped. They are all trapped in their own labyrinth.
    Some really smart and clever operator can maybe manipulate them to counter the jihadist manipulation, but such people are hard to find. So we will have to slog through a lot of shit before they finally abandon their jihadi children and get to a vision of Pakistan than does not include eternal war with India and “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and beyond.
    And this does not even include the role of Saudi Arabia and the role of irrational primal hatred of their own Indian heritage and the economic benefits of a long slow burn and real ethnic divisions and so on and so forth…
    but dont get me wrong. I am an optimist. I think it will change. It just wont happen as quickly and cleanly as we would like. Instead, they will suffer the one hundred onions AND the one hundred slaps before they finally figure it out and realize that there is more money to be made being Bangladesh than there is in being china or Saudi Arabia or America’s pet bull terrier in the region.