Newspaper Articles

What is Pakistan’s elite? -by Ayesha Siddiqa

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

A few days ago in a morning show, I saw a top journalist hold forth about the reckless elite of Pakistan. While there is no doubt about the fact that Pakistan’s elite is irresponsible towards itself and the people, it was more interesting to see the gentleman refer to Altaf Hussain, Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman as part of the elite. Not that these people are not part of the elite, but the person commenting on them was elite himself and was pretending to be a common man.


The fact is that the term and concept, ‘elite’, is misrepresented and misunderstood in this country. Intriguingly, those who are part of the elite themselves carry out most of the anti-elite commentary. In fact, castigating the elite at popular forums is a way to gain legitimacy that could lead to acquisition of greater power. For instance, the MQMcondemns its opponents as elite, while being a part of the power circle itself. Similarly, the PTI leadership, which comes from an elite background, sells a middle class narrative to gain access to greater power and control of government. Even the judges challenge the elite when they are historically part of the power establishment of the country.


Popularly, the term ‘elite’ invokes the image of the landed-feudal group, which was originally part of the ruling elite in 1947. However, over the years this began to change with the state’s civil and military bureaucracy getting integrated into the elite and also using state resources to create other elite groups such as business and industry.


From a definitional perspective, the elite comprises individuals or groups of people that have greater capacity to manipulate the distributive system of the state and thus comparatively gain greater personal advantages. Although the Pakistani state often pretends to distribute land and money to the dispossessed and the landless, the fact of the matter is that such acts are carried out to hide greater resources that are siphoned off by the elite. A glance at how the Capital Development Authority in Islamabad or any other land development authority distributes state land is a case in point. Over the years, prime property has been distributed to senior civil and military bureaucrats, politicians, and elite journalists. The case of how a three-star general chopped off prime property that was part of the cricket stadium in Karachi for further distribution amongst fellow generals is another such example.


So, it is necessary to properly contextualise the elite debate. First, there is no elite-less society. Every state and society has its elite. The elite appear very sinister in a heavily class-oriented society like Pakistan’s.


Second, ‘elite’ is not a static concept but is forever evolving. What constituted elite yesterday may not be the same today or even tomorrow. Historically and popularly, the elite referred to the landed-feudal group because this was the dominant group in an agrarian economy like Pakistan’s. Later, as mentioned earlier, other groups were formed. The evolutionary process also meant that newer elite groups emerged almost every decade due to state patronage that replaced the traditional elite and the older ones merged into the newer formations.


Third, the elite are not just a group, but also the name of a process that facilitates a constant cycle of change in a society. In case of a powerful, yet easily manipulated state like Pakistan, the process of elite formation is directly linked with the ability of a group to manipulate the state, its power and resources. This means that what may be the middle class or lower middle class of yesterday can be the elite of today. For instance, who could imagine a few decades ago that one day, people belonging to lower middle or middle class backgrounds, like Altaf Hussain, Qaim Ali Shah, Malik Riaz, Humayun Akhtar, Ijazul Haq, or Arsalan Iftikhar will be powerful millionaires and part of the elite? Not to forget the fact that today religious leaders like Maulana Fazlur Rehman or jihadi leaders such as Hafiz Saeed, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, Malik Ishaq and others are also part of the power elite.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2012.

About the author

Dr Uzma Ali


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  • Elitist network was seen active a few days ago in defence of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

    In the following article, Bina Shah also criticizes Abdul Neshapuri because he sought Justice For Rukhsana.

    Bina writes:

    What’s astonishing is that with this latest controversy, Obaid-Chinoy is now being attacked by people on both the right and left wing of the political spectrum. Abdul Nishapuri of the Let Us Build Pakistan website that raises awareness about the killings of Shias and Baloch minorities, says rather ridiculously that the controversy “highlights the selective morality and urban elitist bias of the Pakistani elite”.


    Bina forgot to mention that Abdul was referring to the fact that for two long days, Pakistan English press completely censored/ignored Rukhsana’s complaint. Only one Urdu newspaper (Jang) carried the report; the same was not allowed to be published in The News (English newspaper of the same group).

  • Different courntries, differrent meanings of “Elite”. In Bolivia, drug barons were elite and judges that were hearing the case against them were common men, so they were eliminated. Common men cannot raise finger to elite class.

    Here in Pakistan, those who possess power by hook or crook are elite. As rightly pointed out by the authoress, those having links with the power base (Armed forces) or their yes men are elite. All the rest are termites, if you don’t like any termite just cripple them with boots. Of late, judges (specially the CJ)have become elite. They can anull any article of constitution, they can send home the PM. There are news (I don’t have the confirmation) that Registrar of SC sent hundreds of emails and phone message asking the British based hotels and rent-a-car companies to send their tax filing and transactions details with “IMMEDIATE” captions. The British elites are just awed on the daring orders of Registrar of Supreme Court, perhaps English elite class does not know, Supreme Court of Pakistan is Supreme Court of World – anything asked must be furnished without delay, else, strict disciplinary action would be taken – and do not question about jurisdiction, we know our jurisdiction very well.

    Hamlet used to see and talk to ghost of his father. The elite Registrar of SC of Pakistan is seeing living ghost of Malik Riaz in broad day light.

  • What forms the elite? Is it the individuals or groups of people who represent the interest the upper echelon of thesociety or just the landed class> She has mixed the things a bit to far, and included some pndividuals to be part of the elite. Not all the monied people can be classified as “ELITE” Wealth and power combination must be present to call thenm elite. These are the individuals and groups that has no concern with the masses or the public, they rather represent the interest of the upper class of the society.

    They have separate schools, separate helth caresystem. Some of the bureaucrats or military top brass form the elite ckkass. They accumulate wealth by illegal means and power because of their employment . They are turned into elite. Their loyalties lie with the elite of the Society. Their vies are voice of the conservatives and traditionalist groupsof the society. They represent the interest of a small section of the society that rules the masses against their Will. this elite always grasp the power from the masses , and keeps thrir power base in the establishment.

    Historically the feudal class formed the elite. But the things have changed over the years for better or worse the new elite groups have emerged from their ases.
    The power will always remain with the elite because they are entrenched in the establishment. Only bloody RREVOLUTION can change this and transfer power from the elite to the common man.

    Javaid Bashir
    Attorney at law
    Nashua ,NH, USA