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A Cauldron of Conflicts

by Khaled Ahmed

Pakistani traders demonstrate against India during a rally in Islamabad on Feb. 25, 2019. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Pakistan’s economic doldrums can be laid at the feet of the many clashes between various institutions and groups that comprise the country

After 75 years of existence, Pakistan remains politically unstable and economically bankrupt. Farrukh Saleem, writing in daily The News on April 3 noted: “As of August 2021, net reserves with the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) stood at $20 billion. Net reserves with the SBP have since fallen to $12 billion. Over the past seven months, the SBP has lost $8 billion worth of reserves. Over the past seven months, the SBP has been losing an average of more than $1 billion a month worth of reserves. Red alert: During the week ending March 25, the SBP’s reserves declined by a hefty $3 billion—the biggest weekly fall in Pakistan’s history. Red alert: As of March 2022, the SBP reserves cover less than two months of imports.”

Why are Pakistan and its 225 million people in the “oxygen tent” in 2022? Its western border was subject to terrorist assault mostly from its own nationals converted to terrorist organizations rising in the Middle East. Almost 60 percent of its territory was without the writ of the state while its single major city Karachi continued to subsist without law and order comparable to the other 60 percent “lawless” territory. After 75 years, Pakistan remains the poorest state in South Asia barring Sri Lanka. Is the backsliding really economic or is it because the state is internally conflicted?

The thesis of political conflict

Mohammad Waseem, professor of Political Science at the Department of Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), has produced his magnum opus Political Conflict in Pakistan (Hurst & Company London 2021) trying to explain what has gone wrong. Almost all scholarly research on the politics of Pakistan has dealt with conflict between the federal and provincial governments, Islamists and modernists, the religio-sectarian majority and minorities, the civil and military wings of the state, the judiciary and parliament and, though limited in time and scale, between industrialists and labor and between landlords and peasants.

Among many conflicts, clash of institutions is most noteworthy. Conflict can be destructive in the context of loss of peace, prosperity and life, but also constitutive of a new social and political order. One can point to the growing gap between the ‘alien’ and gradually de-legitimized institutional design of the state, and the popular nationalist forces of various shades which demand an overhaul of the system along the indigenous pre-colonial framework of public life.

Conflict, the many-faceted misfortune

Political conflict in Pakistan has drawn massively on the gap between design (read ideology) and practice. This has happened to religious minorities, ethno-linguistic communities, women in public and private life, military intervention in politics and loss of parliamentary sovereignty in terms of both dissolution of elected assemblies and legislation through presidential ordinances. The conflict has been rooted in the gross imbalance between the federal and provincial governments and the functioning of the courts as an entity heavily tilted in favor of one party at the cost of the other in a dyadic conflict.

In this book, conflict is not understood as an upsurge in the smooth waters of political life; indeed, the pre-conflict “peace” should be defined as a process rather than the status quo, beset with multiple micro-conflicts. Conflict emerges when the popular and legitimate intellectual framework of ideas and events is challenged by a new paradigm of rights and demands often bound by the transient nature of the issue at hand and the number of people involved.

Conflict in the master-narrative

After a slow-paced Islamization of the master-narrative, it was gradually elevated to a fully-fledged political movement against the Z. A. Bhutto government in 1977, when industrialists and the middle class in general were used by Islamic elements as cannon-fodder. Gen. Ziaul Haq’s Islamization project was meant to create a divine source of legitimacy to counter the constitutional source of legitimacy that would have brought Bhutto back to power. Islamization under Zia effectively steered the nation towards piety as policy, and morality as law. The history of Pakistan can be divided between pre-Zia and post-Zia periods, or more specifically before and after the 1985 Amendments that indemnify the martial law ordinances, including those relating to the Islamic crime and punishment regime.

According to author Waseem, two populisms of the left and the right symbolized the governments of Z. A. Bhutto (1971-7) and Imran Khan (2018-22), respectively. Bhutto mobilized people in the teeth of opposition from the establishment. Imran Khan’s populist movement is based on his build-up by the establishment itself as a party leader to counter the two mega-political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The military establishment was able to cultivate a constituency for Imran Khan by mobilizing the middle class, including youth, as well as overseas Pakistanis, and by shifting the “electables” from other parties to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

India the pain of unequal conflict

In Pakistan, conflict with India led to the emergence of a national security dilemma as a seceding state coping with a successor state next-door. This changed enormously the institutional imbalance and contributed to the eventual rise of the military to the position of the “security establishment.” But it was Partition itself in 1947 that seeded the conflict in Pakistan by making religion a defining variable for evaluating the role of the elite and the masses, past and present, culture and politics.

It produced a robust sense of predestination whereby people felt they had arrived in the Promised Land. Partition made India a lasting grief for Pakistan, just as it had made Pakistan a lasting grief for India. Apart from the archival history of the constitutional negotiations that led to Partition, one finds emotionally charged and highly subjective accounts of Partition that can be grouped together as partition exotica. Religion triggered a new process. Partition gave the Indian Muslim minority the status of a nation and rendered Pakistani non-Muslims a minority.

Jinnah the ‘definer’

Writes Waseem: “Jinnah’s oft-quoted speech of Aug. 11, 1947 was a grand qualifier in the words of The Pioneer as a shift from Jinnah the partisan to Jinnah the statesman. However, it is hard to miss the real message: that Partition was a landmark in an inexorable march of the partitioning of hearts and minds. Partition made Pakistanis think in terms of a religious framework that would soon be a challenge to the state as a rival source of legitimacy. Was partition, then, a ‘closure’, a ‘rupture’ whereby one social and political order collapsed as the other was struggling to emerge? The first conflict thus became embedded: the Indo-Pakistan rivalry that decided the nature of the Pakistani state. It is not measured to what extent this conflict has damaged Pakistan without damaging India, if economic performance is taken as a criterion.”

The two countries adopted different sources of political legitimation. In India, language was in, religion was out. In Pakistan, religion was in, language was out. Religious politics after Partition as a force against regional or linguistic identities became a part of a federal project In Pakistan. Unlike India, linguistic parties were unable to become the building blocks of the federation of Pakistan. Religion contributed to the formation of a transformative state in Pakistan, at least by internal orientation and public deliberation. This function was constantly propelled into action riding the wave of Muslim nationalism that conflicted with the “English-based” modern and secular state. This led to conflict between modernists, who wanted to keep the constitutional state system intact, and traditionalists, who wanted to replace it with an Islamic state based on Sharia.

Partition as conflict of identities

Both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, and the higher echelons of the Muslim League—the architects of the Pakistan project—belonged to non-Pakistan areas. Pakistan thus emerged as a “migrant state.” It included two thirds of the Muslim Indian Civil Service officers who opted for Pakistan, three quarters of the businessmen and a large majority of intelligentsia crossing over the border. A large part of the migrant elite was socially, culturally and linguistically alien to its land of migration. Therefore, the elite-mass distance was far greater and more forbidding in Pakistan than in India. The pattern of refugee settlement generally enhanced the class basis of the migrants because they were allotted the Hindu evacuee property that out-valued the Muslim evacuee property in India by a large margin, i.e., almost double for agricultural land and three times for urban property

Partition put a seal on what had been happening by way of an ideological divide among neighbors, friends, colleagues, co-followers of religious shrines, as well as the middle-class literary writers, artists, journalists, professors, doctors, engineers and businessmen from the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. Muslim League propaganda operated as an agency to deliver a Muslim “moral community.” It did so by isolating and then insulating the large Muslim population across the border in India. This unmistakably political goal left a deep imprint on future generations of Pakistan. This religious fervor was operationalized through contestations in public life expressed through riots and the tension surrounding elections, cultural activities, religious festivals and the popular press that together shaped the public arena.

Conflicted master narrative

The master narrative of Pakistan has drawn massively on construction of the Hindu demon, personified as India after Partition. If religion as propounded from the All-India Muslim League’s platform was to operate as the grand mobilizer of Muslims, the party needed two things: First, it needed to avoid intra-religious sub-identities that would involve not only variations and hostilities based on the creed but also contradictory practices in religious matters. Second, it needed to construct a demon and a handle to beat it, to escape from it, run away from it; and, in the end, Hindus provided the demon.

The construction of the Hindu demon was taken up in earnest before and during the active pursuit of the Pakistan agenda. Jinnah called Gandhi the “dictator of the Congress,” a party that he understood “as a fascist and authoritarian body” that was committed to “the Hindu renaissance” and “Hindu raj all over India.” As Hindu revivalism represented the emergent narrative in British India, often linked with Hindu Mahasabha, Jinnah declared the Mahasabha and the Congress as “two sides of the same coin.” The Muslim League championed the counter-discourse of Muslim nationalism that covered by art, literature, language, icons, business activity, jobs and dress-code. It made references to global Islam for seeking authentication of belief and practice and declaration of a common cause with the larger Muslim entity. It was claimed that the two nations—Muslims and Hindus in India—had always lived side-by-side as separate entities, sharing minimal cultural and political space.

The paranoid state

Instability springs from fear and conspiracy is a product of state ideology, public policy, or private instinct. Selective pieces of information, an agenda of war against the ghosts in the dark and rampant insecurity are intertwined and combined in a closed mind used by those ranging from the top decision-makers to the people at the bottom. Pursuit of conspiracy by the state or its agencies or by self-confessed defenders of the nation seeks to achieve a national objective which must, therefore, be justified in the noblest of terms. The authenticity of the “national cause” sanctifies conspiracy.

Sometimes the supporters of a conspiracy theory later confess to the need for spreading false news or views in pursuit of the national interest. Conspiracy needs a devil against whom one can devise a conspiratorial narrative. It could, of course, be India or the U.S. or Israel, but also political adversaries at home such as Benazir Bhutto in 1990 or Nawaz Sharif in 2017. General Shahid Aziz in his book before his disappearance saw conspiracy against Islam hatched by Freemasons and Zionists, amongst others. The state propagates a situation of insecurity all around which is infested with conspiracy underscored by the evil designs of the enemies. There is a logical step from conspiracy to treason. Thus, treasonable charges have been levied on people ranging from politicians party workers, intellectuals, and bloggers who cross the Rubicon.

The outsourcing of identity

This narrative served the function of drawing a self-portrayal cultivating a sense of the past and a vision of the future connecting with the world at large. It has been largely defined as an intractable conflict with India. Partition provided the means to partial transition, from the Islamic heritage of Central Asia and Iran to Arabization, from Hanafi to Salafi schools of thought, from South Asia to the Middle East as the pivot of the faith-based Islamic project that increasingly defined the national project. Pakistan developed a dichotomous worldview based on Islam and the West. Its credentials as a legatee of Indo-Muslim civilization became a hotbed of controversy as the state took roots in the previously uncharted territory of present-day Pakistan.

The country looked for an alternative “globality” in the form of a world-of-Islam perspective in the international arena. As a gruesome legacy of Partition, the master-narrative of Pakistan created a Hindu demon as the “other”. While feeling its way through the complexities of national and international life, the national strategic way out was to comprehend things as conspiracy. Thinking minds from the left, the right, the “liberal” and Islamic categories of thought of the political spectrum, continued to display paranoia about international conspiracies to pressure, bully, corner or undo Pakistan.

State elite and middle class

The state elite would not have been able to play the master’s fiddle if it had not drawn on the middle-class support. The middle class includes professionals, technocrats, lawyers, doctors, chartered accountants, professors, journalists, architects, artists, computer analysts, corporate managers and the business community. This class provides the catchment area for the state elite, i.e., civil bureaucracy, the military’s officer cadre as well as the judiciary.

The institutional expression of this class is realized through the state apparatuses. The process of post-recruitment socialization in the form of the training of bureaucracy and army officers aims at merging their individual ambitions with an all-pervasive institutional ethos. The middle class has a near-monopoly over higher education, professional expertise, scientific knowledge, artistic achievement and the cultural expressions of the nation more than any other section of society; the middle class is ideologically orientated to the two domains of religion and nationalism. Religiously speaking, it adheres to scriptural Islam far more than syncretic Islam. It is more tolerant of the madrassa-orientated written tradition than the shrine-based oral tradition of religion. It seeks the unity of the Muslim world and upholds a dichotomous worldview based on conflict between Islam and the West. Similarly, it pursues a nationalist framework of thought and expression, which is set essentially in an anti-Indian, anti-Western, anti-Zionist idiom.

The conflicted Bhutto legacy

The PPP government of Z. A. Bhutto (1971-7) often transgressed the chartered path of the establishment in pursuit of its socialist agenda, which appeared on the party pamphlets, in daily and weekly papers and in posters carrying the message: East is Red. The Bhutto government’s “socialist” idiom and radical educational, labor, administrative and land reforms extended beyond the ideological framework of the state defined by an Islamist and status-quo orientation. On the other end, the ulema parties of various persuasions, which formed the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) government in Peshawar (2002-7), went beyond the doctrinal approaches and behavioral patterns of Islamic modernists who had always been the custodians of ideology and morality of the state. In 2006, the MMA government issued a Hasba Bill that provided for “moral policing” by giving enormous powers to the provincial Ombudsman. It became the Pakistani edition of the Taliban’s vice and virtue department.

The Bhutto legacy has survived at the national level after half a century, though its electoral expression nosedived outside Sindh after the resurgence of the PML under Zia as the new King’s party in 1986. Two decades later, the emergence of a new populist party PTI ate into the PPP’s vote in Punjab in 2013 and 2018. After Bhutto, the PPP formed governments three times in Islamabad (1988-90, 1993-6, and 2008-13), along with its ruling dispensations in Karachi where it continued to be in office even under the PMLN (2013-18) and PTI (2018-22) governments in Islamabad.

After getting Bhutto out of the way in 1979, Zia banned all political activities that could stir up any political controversy, for example, by issuing political statements or hoisting the party flags. Still, the press carried reports of the detained leaders who continued to keep their followers firmly behind them. The threat of the PPP’s street power seemed to recede gradually. By 1982, there had been no substantial threat to the Zia regime because the alliance of opposition parties, the MRD, was hardly a cohesive entity. The establishment was determined to outclass them in their capacity to challenge the regime.

Waseem concludes: “The focal point of this book is political conflict in Pakistan, its genealogy, its cultural codification, and its spatial and temporal dimensions in terms of regional variations and periodic transformations. In a way, the politics is about conflict. Politics is a game defined by a set of rules that covers competition between rivals who roughly match each other. There are normative rules of the game that are understood to be either effective or ineffective no matter whether these are just or unjust. Competition can become fight, and then a different set of rules mediates through a military coup or revolution. There is a reward at the end. Conflict is writ large throughout this process. For the current study of political conflict in Pakistan, the rules were couched in the institutional design of the state. Normative rules that covered elections were often overruled by pragmatic ones that discounted ethics in favor of the coveted reward. In this book, I have tried to unravel the story of conflict between the two sets of rules as reflected in the agendas and actions of the political competitors in the country.”

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