PAKISTAN appears to rank among the most classed, militarised and hate-riven societies. The victimisation of working-class Pakhtuns, Hazaras, etc, under the pretext of deporting ‘illegal Afghans’ is the latest example of the divisions in Pakistani social formation.
The caretaker government’s abrupt decision to kick out almost two million ‘refugees’ — the claim is that it is not exclusively Afghans being targeted — is, in essence, an attempt to scapegoat the victims of a disastrous five-decade-old policy seeking so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan.
Recently, officialdom — with spymasters — celebrated the restoration of Taliban rule after the US withdrew in 2021. Two years on, religious militias again wreak havoc in Pakistan’s tribal districts with the state conspicuous by its absence. Against this backdrop, the deportation initiative is a cynical distractionary tactic.
What I want to focus on here is how such announcements magnify the politics of hate that has taken root amongst working people in Pakistani society. To begin with, state policies of this nature largely affect working people who can be easily targeted by a state apparatus that is trained in anti-people colonial tradition.
The majority of people who have been protesting for days at the Chaman border, for example, are daily wagers. Meanwhile, rich and powerful interest groups, regardless of their ethnic-national background, will continue with business as usual, especially those with close ties to the militarised state apparatus.
The British Raj pitted the subcontinent’s ethnic-national and religious communities against one another. Most historical accounts of the colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy tend to focus on elite segments. But the lowest ranks of the civil and military services, for example, were strategically staffed in ways that stoked ethnic-national and religious tensions in various parts of British India. This has continued in the postcolonial era.
Identity has been polarised in reactionary ways.
Even more divisive has been the state’s imposition of a unitary model of assimilation around the ideological pillars of ‘official’ Islam and Urdu as the exclusive national language. The result has been politicisation of ethnic-national identity, precipitating progressive forms of resistance politics, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when a broadly anti-imperialist and class political front — the National Awami Party — brought together most ethnic-national communities.
But recent decades have seen ethnic-national identity politicised in reactionary ways, especially as financialised and military capital have reared their collective heads.
Arif Hasan has showed how the country’s biggest city, Karachi, has been riven by violent conflicts over land that have been deliberately ethnicised by a combination of state functionaries and economic mafias. Similar trajectories of politics have played out in Sindh’s other urban centres, as well as Balochistan’s economic and political capital Quetta.
All this has happened as concerns about demographic change become increasingly urgent in both Sindh and Balochistan. Indigenous communities globally have legitimate reasons to resist reduction to a demographic minority — for instance, the native population of North America.
But here, directing such concerns towards working-class people from ethnic-national backgrounds considered to be ‘non-indigenous’ deflects from the far bigger role played by the state and big capitalists in depriving local communities of resources, jobs and dignity. In contrast, a progressive politics would bring together working people of all ethnic-national backgrounds against land and other natural resource grabs by the nexus of capital and state.
It is, after all, this same nexus that forces working people from northern Pakistan — and in Afghanistan — to migrate, away from their historical abodes, to escape wars or survive economic hardship. Of course, developing a shared understanding is impossible in a social-mediatised political environment dominated by maximalism and hot takes. And it is not what the militarised state apparatus and right-wing reactionaries want to promote.
I have spent most of my adult life striving to bring together working people from across Pakistan’s many ethnic-national communities to build a viable left alternative. This is no mean task. But politics is the art of making what seems impossible into a real possibility.
In the months and years to come, we can expect the combination of rapacious capitalist profiteering and colonial divide-and-rule statecraft to reinforce the conditions in which the politics of hate takes root and thrives. The only hope of averting a rapid descent into barbarism is if progressives of all ethnic-national communities generate the collective will to build something different.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023