Refusing to learn

Updated February 11, 2019

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE brazen police-led harassment of academic and activist, Dr Ammar Jan, for his participation in a PTM-affiliated protest revealed once more the Pakistani state’s attitude and approach towards progressive politics. While others have written and will continue to write about recent events, it is also worth zooming out and seeing these as part of the general approach towards political conflict in the country.

All disagreement on the distribution of resources (such as revenue, subsidies, and natural resources like water and gas), the distribution of rights (such as citizenship, law, personal and organisational freedoms, and other associated liberties), and the distribution of authority (who gets to decide the first two) can be categorised as political conflict.

Pakistan’s history shows one primary axis of political conflict — the state (or the centre) versus peripheral regions. These regions represent politicised ethnic collectivities, and thus the central question in political contestation has been over the distribution of resources, rights, and authority for these regions/ethnic groups.

Ethnic conflict was around when Pakistan became an independent state.

However, at varying points in the past, class conflict (especially during the 1960s and 1970s) and religious conflict (during the last two decades) has also coloured the political field.

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Ethnic, class and religious conflict are substantively different. The former lends itself to geographical secessionism, as it has at various points in the past. Class and religious conflict is more about the nature of the state. Despite these differences, the approach of the dominant order of power — whether one calls it the ruling elite, or by its precise institutional edifice, the military and its junior partners — to ethnic and class conflict in particular has followed the same pattern: coercion, blowback, escalation, and suppression.

In one domain it has been successful — class conflict was coercively dealt with both by Bhutto and, more forcefully, by Zia through their assault on the labour and peasant movements. It is thus a figment of the past for old people, and fails to register in the contemporary imagination of young people. It is a rare instance of the state succeeding with its bludgeoning approach to the point that the challenger no longer poses an institutionalised threat to the dominant order of power. Poor people are so burdened by the anxieties of basic subsistence that claim-making for a new social contract with the state does not figure into their lived reality.

Explore: The politics of religion

Religious conflict has seen the most interesting history. It is where the state has remained the most accommodative, and used coercion only when the institutional interests of the military have been challenged. Our constitutional and legislative history, and law books more generally, are a testament to the generosity of the state as far as religious claim-making is concerned.

But it is ethnic claim-making where the dominant order of power has persisted with a largely coercive approach and refused to exhibit any amount of learning. This is ironic (and frankly astounding) given the sheer number of occasions offered for a rethink.

Ethnic conflict was around when Pakistan became an independent state. It appeared forcefully when disputes emerged over the nature of constitutional design in the early years of independence; it displayed its strength in the first provincial assembly polls in erstwhile East Pakistan in the early 1950s. It escalated during much of the 1960s, when legislative debates showed representatives of the (numerically dominant but politically peripheral) ethnic group, the Bengalis, warning the military-bureaucratic oligarchy of resource distribution imbalances. And it reached its ultimate crescendo in the civil war that followed a failure of the dominant order to respect a democratic mandate.

Take a look: The Pakhtuns & the Baloch

But inexplicably, the stark nature of the outcome (an independent state) was insufficient to persuade the state that ethnic grievances could be handled in some other form. So brute strength was used again in the aftermath of Bhutto’s NAP government dismissal in Balochistan, against Sindhi nationalists in the 1980s, against Urdu-speakers’ mobilisation in the 1990s, against the Baloch (again) from the mid-2000s onwards, and now against the mobilised Pakhtun youth of Fata.

The instruments of coercion have evolved to include smear campaigns, enforced disappearances, and heavy censorship, alongside the use of brute force. There is no attempt to understand the underlying nature of the problem, ie the distribution of resources or rights, nor is there any other lens available to see the problem except that of national (in)security and nefarious foreign designs. This is a logical outcome of decision-making remaining in the hands of an institution trained only to see all political conflict as a security and sovereignty-related issue. If the strategists running affairs of the state were to truly reflect on the country’s history, they would see external drivers of conflict as, at best, marginally influential.

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The tragedy is that since 2008, the country has seen some marginal progress in the development of an institutional framework that provides for non-violent resolution of political conflicts. Its most obvious forms are the limited workings of a civilian government, a functioning legislature, and the 18th Amendment that resolved some basic resource and authority-related conflicts. But now we hear planted voices all day that this solution has weakened the centre, and thus weakened the country — a spurious correlation that has persisted for seven decades.

As a country that is constitutionally mandated to operate as a democracy, and with a history of failed attempts at coercion, accommodation, autonomy, and transparency are primordial tasks that should not require such vocal enunciation. It is unfortunate that they do and that enunciation is done with little effect. And it will be an even more unfortunate riposte to history when in an attempt to centralise power further and bludgeon a ‘post-ethnic’ state into being, the dominant order removes even those moderately functioning platforms of conflict resolution that have emerged in the last decade.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
umairjaved@outlook.com
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2019