Negotiating with the weak

Published January 10, 2021
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

MOVING into the new year, two incidents have once again highlighted the state’s chronic inability to protect its marginalised and vulnerable people. The vandalisation of a Hindu Samadhi in Karak on Dec 30 illustrates how the majority still fears and treats the minorities. Similarly, the reluctance of Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit Quetta to condole with the families of slain Shia Hazara miners adds to the perception that the country’s power elites have little empathy for the people or a sense of responsibility towards them.

However, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has tried to heal the wounds of the country’s non-Muslim citizens by taking suo motu notice of the Hindu temple’s vandalisation. Apparently the last hope for the religious minorities, Pakistan’s superior courts are trying their best to protect the former’s constitutional rights. As majoritarian and less tolerant thinking increasingly comes to prevail in society, the power elites not only share the same mindset but also tolerate and even protect the collaborators of hatred and violence.

The government and its institutions, including the civilian law-enforcement agencies, hesitate to proactively tackle cases of religious hatred. They may have multiple excuses for this, but their indifferent and irresponsible attitude has been intensifying the scourge of religious hatred in society.

A review of the academic work that has been done to understand the power dynamics in Pakistan from political and socio-economic perspectives, suggests that the ‘mindset’ that controls the levers of power here has limited skills of negotiating with the people at the margins. The security institutions have effectively dealt with religiously motivated terrorist groups and severely damaged their strongholds inside the country. During the peak years of the war against terrorism, state institutions had brokered several deals with the terrorist groups. However, none of the deals survived for long and as a last resort the terrorists were countered with full kinetic force. These deals were different and part of the political strategy to blunt the destructive edge of the terrorist groups.

The ‘mindset’ of the power elite here has limited skills of negotiating with people at the margins.

However, state institutions are still struggling to negotiate with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. The same can be said for Balochistan where political dialogue has not moved forward during decades of conflict.

It is easy for state institutions to use a coercive approach in negotiation. If the other side is aggressive and supports violence, it becomes much easier for the state to deal with them. However, the Indian subcontinent also has a tradition of non-violent movements, which continue to reincarnate themselves in the form of political movements and socio-religious movements. But power also has an ego, which prevents it from negotiating with the weak, but it also fears that the process will empower the weak and make them equal to the stakeholder.

It is obvious that the weak party has no option except to remain submissive and follow the dictates of the strong majority. However, the awareness of rights and the dream of an egalitarian state never dies in communities, especially among more educated and politically awakened ones like the Hazaras in Quetta. The power elites feel uncomfortable whenever the Hazaras protest against the murder of members of their community. The protests grab the attention of local and international media, and the state, which is trying hard to improve its international image. The government tries to pacify them, but it does not heal their wounds.

The improving security statistics offer the country an encouraging outlook as terrorist incidents have been declining for the last many years. However, though terrorist violence in the year 2020 declined over 36 per cent from the year before, the militants were successful in carrying out at least 146 terrorist attacks across Pakistan, including three suicide blasts. Secondly, the statistical decline in incidents of terrorism does not mean that the challenge of religious extremism has also been addressed. Extremism has its roots in power relationships in Pakistan, but it also shows the inability of the state to manage diversity.

One can argue that the whole of South Asia, specifically India, has been struggling to manage religious and ethnic diversity. The saffron radicalism in India has disturbed the social and political equilibrium of society. While the Indian case appears relatively more severe, a few parallels can also be drawn between the ‘mindsets’ in action in India and Pakistan. For one, the majoritarian mindset acts in a similar way all across the world and hates diversity. The reason is obvious; managing diversity does not mean only to be tolerant towards other faiths or celebrate their religious festivals, cultures, and ethnicities, but also to acknowledge their share in the economy and political power.

This is a critical and tricky part of the equation, which is linked with the society’s collective identity, socio-political coherence and acceptance. It is natural that people of the same faith, race, tribe, culture, and class have developed an affinity and common interests. If the pie of economic resources is big, they don’t object to inclusive sharing, but if the pie is small, the majority finds an excuse to not share power and resources with others.

The majoritarian mindset also has supremacist tendencies, and the worst superiority complex is ideological, which can trigger massive hate, violence, disorder, chaos, and geographical divisions. Its manifestation is at full tilt in India; Pakistan also has similar tendencies but at a lower level because it has certain compulsions which keep its superiority sentiments suppressed. The geopolitical compulsions present an interesting case as Pakistan is located between two major Asian countries and has complex relations with Shia and Sunni states in the Gulf. It cannot afford to allow the Sunni majority to enjoy full superiority, but it somehow sympathises with their cause. The geo-economic engagement with China and with the West also keeps pressure on the power elites not to play with the superiority sentiments to the extent that they can cause chaos and security problems.

Eventually, Pakistan will have to initiate negotiations with the weak. It will not hurt the ego of the power elites; rather it will pave the way for national coherence.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2021

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