Global human society deals constantly with a plethora of contradictions that evolve into conflicts, which then further mutate into violent conflicts. Within different geographical regions of the world and inside individual countries, at times, there are certain contradictions — unique to these places — that have persisted for centuries.

Additionally, fresh contradictions continue to appear with changing material conditions over time, which lead to the emergence and consolidation of new interest and pressure groups. Sometimes, the roots of these new formations can be traced back through history, but they are different from the past in terms of shape, form, substance and the articulation of demands.

Pakistan has borne its own set of contradictions since inception. Over the last 75 years, these have developed into deeply entrenched conflicts between various adversarial groups pitched against each other in the country’s polity, society, culture and collective psyche.

Some of these conflicts have demonstrated the exceptional harm they may cause through extreme forms of violence and the gross suffering inflicted on the feuding factions and ordinary people alike. Examples can be the 1971 debacle of East Pakistan’s secession, the perpetual use of force by the state to curb militant Baloch separatism since the 1960s, or the urban violence causing death and destruction in Karachi during the 1990s.

We’ve witnessed many other examples of political violence. In addition, sectarian and religious conflicts have also perpetrated extreme forms of violence since the 1990s, tearing apart the cultural and social fabric.

Since history is both distorted and selectively interpreted in Pakistan’s mainstream public discourse, we have lost the capacity to rightly understand the present and, subsequently, intelligently envisage the future. However, there have been scholars and historians who have contributed significantly towards understanding Pakistan’s fundamental problems in a historic continuum, to the best of their ability and reach.

From K.K. Aziz to Ayesha Jalal, from Ishtiaq Ahmed to Mubarak Ali, from Tahir Kamran to Ilhan Niaz, there are individuals who have tried to grapple with, and propose some kind of resolutions to, the questions we face, whether ideological, existential or territorial.

In Urdu, a compendium of the country’s political history by Zahid Chaudhary and Hasan Jafar Zaidi, titled Pakistan Ki Siyasi Tareekh [The Political History of Pakistan], deserves special mention. Originally in 12 volumes, it continues to be expanded on the same lines by the publisher Idara Mutalia Tareekh, Lahore. In their work, Chaudhry and Zaidi provide maximum resource material from the pre-Partition days until the end of the last century.

One may disagree with both the assessment of certain personalities who shaped history or the commentaries offered by the historians I mention on the basis of their views, but their sincerity of purpose has to be acknowledged.

The purpose — stated or tacit — is to learn from what went right and what went wrong, so that a viable state and a healthy society may exist, even while harbouring all its contradictions. The point is having the maturity and sense of history to not let these contradictions turn into conflicts.

Also, there seems to be an inherent desire among many of our historians to define the ‘principal contradiction’ of Pakistani state and society. According to Mao Zedong, the principal contradiction is that basic contradiction which allows other contradictions to exist in a society. Undoubtedly, Mao’s 1937 essay ‘On Contradiction’, is one of the 20th century’s best pieces of Marxist writings.

For our leading political scientist Dr Mohammad Waseem, the principal contradiction that reveals itself in sharp, exacting conflict — in both Pakistan’s political history and its contemporary politics — remains between what he calls the “state elite” and the “political elite.” By this he means there is a clash between the aspirations of people at large, manifested through political means on the one hand, and the imagination of those who guard the structures of the state, on the other hand.

However, what he explains is that these structures, that intend to sustain economic and political power, draw their legitimacy from a specific cultural narrative based on an imaginary past of Muslim glory, combined with a desire to consolidate power in the name of cultural supremacy in the present-day.

This narrative is propounded by the Pakistani middle class, its ideological antecedents predominantly being the North Indian immigrant elites and a professional class that defined the nature of the ‘state elite’ in Pakistan after Partition. In the years to come, they were to be relegated to a secondary position to the Punjabi-dominated military and civil bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the ideological paradigm did not shift. This continues to cause tensions across the warp and weft of Pakistani politics and its cascading social system.

Waseem’s latest work, Political Conflict in Pakistan, is one of the most remarkable books one has come across, which explains the lay of the land clearly, both figuratively and literally.

In this — part of a series on comparative politics and international studies edited by none other than political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot — Waseem offers an exhaustive review of the subject which so simply and aptly happens to also be the title of the book.

The book’s seven chapters look at the causes and determinants of Partition, the nature of democracy or quasi-democracy that evolved in Pakistan, the constitutional and legal issues faced all along, and the tense relationship between a traditional society and modern conceptions of a post-colonial state.

These chapters are ensconced between a clear, powerful introduction and a somewhat shyly recommendatory conclusion. A smooth transition takes place between each chapter, making it easier for readers to comfortably finish an engaging but large book.

Lastly, I will submit that Waseem’s rigorous compilation of facts and the insightful analysis offered must be taken seriously. Ah! If only the powers-that-be could ever understand.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 6th, 2022

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