THAT Pakistan is a complex and divided society is acknow-ledged by most serious observers. Unfortunately these serious observers are few and far between; simplistic rhetoric and sloganeering predominate in newspapers, on the airwaves and, more generally, in the shape of an increasingly fractured public discourse.
Among other things what stands out like a sore thumb in this country is the number of social and political constituencies that lay claim to being, for lack of a better word, oppressed. One of the most conspicuous features of the Pakistani social condition is the exploitation and oppression of the toiling classes, under-represented ethno-linguistic nations, minorities and women. Yet it has now almost become fashionable for anyone and everyone to jump on the ‘oppressed’ bandwagon, with the effect that the word has been virtually robbed of all meaning.
The most ludicrous claims are being made these days by the Punjab chief minister who is busy attending as many anti-loadshedding protests as possible in a bid to confirm that Punjab is being victimised by the seemingly omnipotent Asif Ali Zardari. Thankfully the myth of a monolithic Punjab has over the past few years more or less been put to rest and with it, hopefully, the populist shenanigans of Sharif the younger will also bite the dust.
But there are less absurd claims also doing the rounds, and these claims need to both be taken seriously and also subjected to reasonable and objective criticism. In particular I want to draw attention to what I consider to be the most significant fault line in Pakistan, namely ethno-linguistic identity. By most significant I mean only that this particular identity has been politicised much more than, say, class or gender, not that the latter identities are less important determinants of social status and power. My point is that we need to acknowledge the tremendous conflict and competition along ethno-linguistic lines that exist in Pakistan. Indeed this is one of, if not the biggest, contemporary challenge we face.
With the exception of Punjabis — and notwithstanding Shahbaz Sharif’s recent rhetoric — all of the other ethno-linguistic communities in Pakistan contend that they are exploited by the establishment. In some cases the facts are unambiguous, none more so than that of the Baloch nation that has, since the very inception of the state, been subjugated by Rawalpindi (and an unending number of politicians that have either acquiesced to or happily adopted the heavy-handed GHQ way).
But it is just as true that not every single Baloch is a victim of state terror. Indeed, thousands of Baloch are employed by the state and many more are integrated into countrywide economic and social networks. In short, the well-being of these many Baloch individuals, families and wider kinship groups is inextricably connected, directly or indirectly, to those of other Pakistanis who in Baloch nationalist narratives are unmistakably considered the enemy.
Importantly, the Baloch are probably the least well-integrated into Pakistan’s formal structures. To the extent that generalisation is possible, it can be reasonably argued that Punjabis, followed by Pashtuns and Urdu-speakers, are the most mobile and incorporated of all of Pakistani ethno-linguistic communities. But this does not mean that Seraikis, Sindhis, Hazarawals (of KP) and Kashmiris are completely deprived of a share of political and economic resources. Finally a not insignificant number of individuals hailing from much smaller constituencies, such as the Hazaras of Quetta or the diverse communities of Gilgit-Baltistan, within whom nationalist sentiments on the basis of (real and perceived) victimisation are intensifying, also thrive within existing political and economic structures.
In short, there is now more than cursory evidence to suggest that, for all of the divisiveness that characterises the polity, quite powerful forces of integration, some of them admittedly coercive, are also in operation. True integration, both between and across the gender and class divisions within ethno-linguistic communities, necessarily requires a level playing field and a fundamental overhaul of the unitary nationalism privileged by the Pakistani state. But this same Pakistani state which cannot seem to accept the multinational reality of society has also had its insularity and coherence shattered and today, more than ever, a broader cross section of the Pakistani population has direct access to state power and, by extension, economic power.
Some scholars have given this process the name ‘nativisation’, which in simple terms refers to the gradual displacement of the relatively narrow, Westernised elite that once dominated every aspect of the polity and economy by a more amorphous mixture of ethno-linguistic communities and classes. By no means are the political economy of nativisation and long-standing structures of power mutually exclusive. But change has nevertheless taken place over time, and will continue to do so in the future.
A little nuance will also help in making sense of the narratives of oppression that have taken root within relatively dominant communities such as Urdu-speakers. The control that Urdu-speakers once exercised over political and economic resources in urban Sindh — and Karachi in particular — has been challenged by the related facts of state fragmentation and the encroachment of other ethno-linguistic communities. Thus the gruesome turf wars that afflict the country’s biggest metropolitan centre.
An incisive analysis of the ethnic divides that characterise contemporary Pakistan is necessary if we are to bridge these divides.
This, of course, requires political will. Just as it would be wrong to let Shahbaz Sharif’s ridiculous proclamations go unchallenged, it is also necessary to stand up to the blanket constructions of oppressor-oppressed that are propagated by increasingly xenophobic strands within ethno-nationalist movements.
It would be foolish to deny that there are real divisions that underlie the polemic; for example, it is said that during the recent by-election in Multan the ‘local’ Seraiki and ‘settler’ Punjabi populations were completely polarised. And this is why it is necessary for sane voices across all of these divides to speak truth to power, wherever it may reside.
There is still hope that all of this country’s people can come together and build a society that is inclusive and celebrates diversity. But this means going beyond the fashion of holding Punjab responsible for everything wrong in the world just as it requires more Punjabis to recognise and redress the historic fact of the establishment’s Punjabi character. Whether the chicken comes first or the egg is a game we can keep playing indefinitely, but with consequences we would do well to consider.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.