WILL Pakistan actually default if the IMF, Saudi Arabia and other donors do not disburse a few billion dollars? Some are sounding the alarm bell, but others — including the government — insist that our economic ship is not about to sink anytime soon. They tell us we will not become Sri Lanka.
It is indeed unlikely that the state will declare bankruptcy because our patrons — Western, Islamic kingdoms and the Chinese — may prefer that we don’t plunge headlong into chaos. In any case, there is little relief on the horizon from the lethal combination of spiralling inflation and the fallout of the monsoon rains. Reportedly 90 million Pakistanis are already going hungry.
But still we are supposed to be reassured that it won’t get as bad as Sri Lanka. In making such rhetorical statements, the political and intellectual mainstream is deliberately glossing over another defining feature of Pakistan’s social and political life that resembles Sri Lanka. Like that island country, Pakistan too is an ethnically majoritarian state which continues to treat its peripheral ethnic-nations like colonial subjects.
Read: Lankan meltdown lessons
Since the British left what was then called Ceylon in 1948, the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has faced systematic and systemic racism at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. The protests against the Rajapaksas were triggered by the current economic situation. But they are noteworthy also because the Rajapaksa brothers presided over the 2009 scorched-earth military operations in the Tamil-majority Jaffna province that mainstream Sri Lanka celebrated as a definitive victory against separatist militants.
Politics in the heartland remains unconnected to the peripheries.
Many Sri Lankans at home and abroad have wondered out aloud whether or not the mass uprising is actually bringing together ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils around a shared vision of the future, such that there is genuine healing particularly for Tamils who have suffered structural and physical violence for generations.
We in Pakistan cannot even ask such rhetorical questions. Indeed, the mainstream does not even bother to chronicle the ongoing processes of brutalisation and hate in many of our ethnic peripheries. Recently, 10 mutilated bodies were discovered in Ziarat, described by officialdom as separatist militants. When families of missing persons identified some of the dead and gathered in Quetta to peacefully demand a judicial investigation, they were baton-charged and tear gassed.
The situation of the Baloch is in and of itself sufficient evidence that the khaki arbiters of Pakistan’s structure of power long ago defaulted on the idea of an inclusive political, economic and cultural project. Only a social contract which acknowledges that this country is made up of many ethnic nations and then ensures equality of these ethnic nations can begin to repair the wounds and take us forward.
Hate has indeed penetrated deep down into society. The ethnic tensions and violence that erupted between Sindhis and Pakhtuns after a murder in Hyderabad makes clear that divide-and-rule policies have successfully produced an intractable situation that engulfs even progressive voices.
It is old news that our mainstream parties are not up to the task of an alternative vision for Pakistan. They are more interested in either staying in government or finding a way back in; recent by-elections in Punjab underlined how everyday politics in the majoritarian heartland of the country is almost completely unconnected to the ethnic peripheries. Expect that the PTI, the PDM/PPP, and, of course, the military establishment, will continue to focus on their no-holds-barred battles for power like the one currently playing out in and around the ECP.
The current government and its establishment patrons will certainly dedicate enough time and energy to keeping the IMF, Saudi Arabia and other donors onboard because the alternative scenario threatens the entire coterie’s accumulation of power and wealth.
And what of Imran Khan, whose supporters believe has broken with the minimum consensus that has kept our militarised ruling class intact till now? The true measure of whether a party or leader is challenging status quo is whether they articulate a political project which emphatically rejects colonial statecraft in the ethnic peripheries, while offering a unique vision for metropolitan Pakistan beyond land grabbers, war makers and profiteering cartels.
If Pakistan were to declare bankruptcy in the weeks to come, the burden would yet again be borne by the working masses. But the truth is that we are already a country in default. And only a vision to transcend hate and redistribute wealth alongside will constitute a genuine reboot. I believe that there are enough of us still able and willing to offer a meaningful economic, political and cultural alternative. But there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when such a vision will be too little, too late.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2022