Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s arrest sparked off unprecedented violence pushing the country to an almost civil war situation. On the surface, it seemed an outburst of anger by Imran’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. But there is also an undercurrent of people’s outrage against an almost dysfunctional government over other issues. One is the suffering of the people as a result of the current economic crisis.
The price of a litre of milk has surged to Pakistani Rs. 250 and chicken to Rs. 780 per kg. According to one report, the price of onions has increased by 415 per cent in cities and 464 per cent in villages. Videos on social media show that people are fighting on the streets for basic food items.
Stampedes are reported to have taken place in markets across the country for a few bags of wheat. The Pakistan government has adopted a policy of pay-cuts apparently to reduce people’s purchasing capacity to strike a balance between demand and supply.
This has become counter-productive. According to Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn, pilots are fleeing the country because of this new policy. On the whole, people’s lives are more miserable. Even after Imran’s release, they have unleashed violence. One may find it quite intriguing that despite all this, terror funding has not stopped.
Training camps of terrorists are still being installed at the behest of the Army and the ISI, to foment insurgency in Kashmir. Pakistani leaders justify the move by propagating the falsehood that Muslims in India are facing repression.
They are so obsessed with triggering India’s disintegration that they find hardly any time to focus on internal dissensions caused by the economic crisis. Such an attitude of rulers did not develop overnight. It is part of a systemic fault that has been handed down from the past. It is rooted in the process that gave birth to the state of Pakistan.
The process originated when the Pakistan demand was raised in India leading to a call for ‘Direct Action’. M A Jinnah and his working committee of the Muslim League proposed it on 29 July 1946. They declared that the ‘Muslim nation’ should resort to ‘Direct Action’ to achieve Pakistan. Millions lost their home and hearth and almost an equal number of people were butchered.
The leaders who campaigned for a separate religious identity continued their politics of hatred after the division. A state born with the chief objective of asserting its separateness from India could not eradicate hatred towards India from the political system. Radicalisation, in a way, sustained it, as it did in pre-Partition days. On 14 August 1947, Jinnah, to present a secular image, said, in reply to Mountbatten’s address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, ‘’you are free; you are free to go to temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan…’’ But after Jinnah’s death, Islamic scholar, Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usman, revealed that Jinnah wanted Muslims of the world to be united under the banner of Islam to fight their enemies.
Pakistan was left in the lurch by this double standard. Jinnah, however, realised that Islam alone could not act as a common bond to unite constituent units of Pakistan. He insisted on allegiance to Pakistan and Pakistan alone. He said in Dhaka in March 1948, “…There are of course units. But…you belong to a nation now. If you want to build yourself up into a nation, for God’s sake give up…provincialism.” But such propagation of national perspective did not work. Ethnic ties proved stronger than national identity. After Jinnah’s death, political leaders in Pakistan paid lip service to democracy and republicanism, but they never seriously tried to stop radicalisation of society.
Their Kashmir agenda is not unrelated to it. They wanted to bring Kashmir under a Muslim stronghold led by Pakistan. The scheme paid dividends to the extent of Kashmiri Pandits being driven out by radicalised elements. Various Pakistan-backed terrorist organisations provided logistical support and ideological inspiration to these groups.
The terrorists were given a free hand even inside Pakistan with the endorsement of authorities. So much so, that certain members of terrorist outfits were allowed to tour the country, displaying heads of Indian security personnel killed in Kashmir. Violence has been deliberately instilled into society by the political leaders. They continue spewing venom against India in public meetings. Perhaps they believe that by sustaining a belligerent posture against India they would be able to ensure development of a strong nationalist feeling. They are wrong. Nothing can stop Pakistan’s decline. There are certain maladies inherent to the system that evolved over the years. Apart from the legacy of partition, Pakistan also faces the problem of a feudal base of its political system. It has obstructed modernisation drives and growth of democratic space in the country. In parallel, independence claims of the provinces are now posing a serious threat to the country’s existence.
The feudal base of Pakistan refers to the influence of large landowning families. About half of Pakistan’s GDP and a substantial amount of its export earnings are derived from the agricultural sector which is controlled by these families. They always retained their hold over Pakistan’s political system.
These wealthy and politically powerful landowners were averse to any change in the existing order for fear of losing their power. They discouraged education because they thought that it might result in loss of their subjects’ unconditional loyalty.
The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 along with family planning policies were fiercely resisted. Politics, under their influence, remained conservative, undemocratic and prone to religious orthodoxy. Pakistan was tailor made for an authoritarian political culture.
Despite the rise of the urban elite, large landowning families, with economic powers concentrated in their hands, are still wielding effective political control. Pakistani historian Iftikhar H. Malik says that in periods of both military and civilian rule, the big landowners have been the power behind the throne. In the 1950s and the 60s feudal families played a determining role in national affairs through their influence on the bureaucracy and military. In 1971 they could directly exercise control through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was from a powerful landowning family. It is significant that Muslim League, the party which established Pakistan in 1947 comprised many such big landowners.
A majority of the leaders of Muslim League were Taluqdars, Zamindars, Jagirdars, Nawab and Sardars. The party indulged in fanatic adherence to a religious identity because it helped them win the battle for a separate nation on religious grounds. Its legacy was borne by the feudal class in Pakistan after the transfer of power.
Advent of industrialisation in an essentially feudal agricultural society did not bring about any substantial change. Frequently it led to conflict of authority in the political system. In such situations, the military is found the only option for securing stability. Democracy took a back seat in spite of sporadic efforts of certain leaders. Now, even the military is not spared in the mob violence after Imran Khan’s arrest. This shows that people no longer rely on any existing institution especially the army to look after them in stress and strain. It may go a long way to determine the fate of the state of Pakistan. Pakistan is facing an existential problem due to the rise of nationalist movements in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
There has been statesponsored repression to stop such movements. Still, they continue to challenge the authority of Islamabad. Atrocities perpetrated on people of these regions to suppress their protests have nullified possibilities of peace. Maximum unrest has taken place in Balochistan and Sindh.
The nationalist movement in Balochistan raised the issue of outright secession and creation of an independent state of Balochistan. Sindh demanded creation of ‘Sindhudesh’ – a homeland for Sindhis. It was launched by the Sindhi political leader G.M. Sayed after the birth of Bangladesh.
Pakistan has a fractured identity which cannot be cemented by any common religious bond. The problem could have been solved by developing a strong nationalist spirit. Neither the autocratic political culture endorsed by the feudal system nor the shortlived democratic endeavour of the urban elite had so far focused on the development of citizens’ national identity. Instead, the Army has always been used to keep the country united. The Army unleashed unspeakable brutality in the provinces. Paank, the Baloch human rights organisation, reports that in 2022, there were 629 forced disappearances and 195 extrajudicial killings by the army in Balochistan. In addition, there were 187 incidents of torture. This has made the independence movements of the constituent units even more intense and relentless.
The country has been ravaged by Taliban hostility. The Pakistani Taliban, called Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan [TTP], has declared that its objective is to resist the Pakistani state. This is a group of armed militants. They support the Afghan Taliban’s claim in the on-going border disputes between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The principal root of Pak-Afghan border disputes is an ethnic conflict between the Punjabis, the largest ethnic group in Pakistan, and Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Pashtuns living on the Pakistan side of the border are controlled by the Punjabis. Pashtuns resent this. It has added fuel to the unresolved disputes over the Durand Line. The Afghans have already made repeated attempts to seize certain territories of Pakistan. At the end, one wonders whether a country with so many disquieting features can survive.
(The writer is former Head of the Department of Political Science, Presidency College, Kolkata.)