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Diaspora diaries

February 23, 2018


THE Pakistani diaspora is one of the biggest and most influential in the world. It is also incredibly diverse in its class and ethnic composition — as well as attitudes towards politics. In recent times the importance of the diaspora has been highlighted both by the Panama Papers — which detail how rich and powerful Pakistanis within and without the country collude to make money — and by the foreign funding case in the Supreme Court in which the huge amounts of money ‘donated’ to the PTI by Pakistanis abroad has come to light.

More generally, labour is the country’s biggest export, meaning that we earn more money from remittances than any tangible good manufactured in Pakistan for sale abroad. With a population of young people exploding through the roof with little or no employment prospects within the country, our export of labour — legal or otherwise — is very likely to continue increasing over time.

For all of these reasons (and more), it is worth dwelling on at least some of the major segments of the diaspora and how their influence is likely to grow or decline on Pakistan’s political economy in times to come.

Our export of labour is very likely to continue increasing.

Unskilled labour: Arguably the biggest segment of the Pakistani diaspora is unskilled labour. Iconic communities include the Mirpuris who went to England in the 1950s, Pakhtuns and Punjabis from the Potohar Plateau and the Peshawar Valley who were the first Gulf migrants in the 1970s, as well as the Baloch from the Makran coast working in Oman. In recent times migrations abroad from the Sindhi and Seraiki belts have increased. Many of those who make their away abroad do so at great risk, travelling without documentation and in horrific conditions, whether overland or by sea. Some never make it, while a large number who survive must work under the table with little to show for it. Even our Muslim brethren in the Gulf that once provided relatively stable employment arrangements have started to turn out many Pakistani workers.

This segment of the diaspora is poorly organised but can be sympathetic to democratic politics, linking up when possible to progressives fighting for the causes of immigrants in Europe, America and Australia. Those who have spent time in the police states of the Gulf have sometimes imbibed Wahabi influences which they bring back to their home communities, but they have also developed contradictory impulses as consumers exposed to the glam and glitter of capitalist globalisation. All in all, this class generates untold remittances for the country without the requisite political voice.

Upwardly mobile professionals and businesspeople: This is the most influential of all of the diasporic communities. Take Pakistani medical doctors in North America who have their own association (APPNA) and regularly lobby Congress and Pakistani officialdom. Since the onset of the current phase of financial globalisation in the 1990s, this segment has strengthened its connections to the corridors of power, particularly as Pakistanis working in multinational firms and private business look to take advantage of investment opportunities in real estate, oil and gas, mineral exploration and infrastructural development. These rich and powerful Pakistanis loved the Musharraf regime, mostly support overreaching judges and generals and typically display contempt for democracy. Some even donate money to ‘Islamic’ causes. These days Imran Khan is their blue-eyed boy, but they will cultivate connections with whoever is in government.

Politically aware middle class: This is the x-factor within the diaspora. It can espouse both progressive and reactionary causes. The progressive element is most visible in Baloch, Sindhi and Pakhtun ethnic-national movements while the prominent reactionary elements ply their trade in transnational Islamist groups like the Hizbut Tahrir and the Tableeghi Jamaat. As far as diasporic progressives go, there’s tremendous space to bring together leftists, feminists, greens, the labouring poor and ethnic-national movements, but such organised efforts are, till now, few and far between.

As intrigue builds in the lead-up to the general election (see the most recent Supreme Court judgement against Nawaz Sharif), it is painfully evident that rich and powerful Pakistanis residing abroad continue to find ways to represent their interests within domestic politics.

It is up to progressives in the diaspora and those at home to address what is as much a global as a specifically Pakistani crisis of politics in the contemporary period ie that the political mainstream tends to completely neglect the real issues faced by the majority of working people, both here and abroad. We live in a world where on the one hand we are promised ‘development’, while on the other hand more and more people face dispossession (which the mainstream media ignores).

It is on this contradictory basis that world history is likely to play out in the years to come. Do we have a vision to engender an egalitarian, inclusive politics within this maelstrom?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2018