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What Is really Happening in Pakistan?
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Throughout the cold war, the Pakistani left and ethno-nationalists struggled together against the dominant military establishment backed by American imperialism. As the New Great Game unfolds in the region, the need to revive this historic alliance is greater than ever, but, in the short run, the prospects of such a revival seem remote.
he collapse of Pakistan has been prophesised countless times in the 62 years since the Partition of India. The conspiracy theories doing the rounds at present are, therefore, hardly a novelty. It is true that more serious questions are being raised about Pakistan’s future in the present conjuncture than ever before, but it is also true that most of the doomsday scenarios in circulation pay little attention to social forces and political alignments within Pakistan, and focus almost exclusively on the vagaries of the “Great Game”. Even if (one or many) international powers are committed to redrawing the map of the region, without the support of a critical mass of political players within Pakistan no such project is tenable. While the western corporate media obsesses about the Islamists and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the true nature and extent of Pakistan’s internal fragmentation remains underspecified. From the outset Pakistan has been a state that has refused to accept its inheritance of multiple and relatively well-constituted national groups. The rot set in before Partition when Congress influentials like Sardar Patel insisted that Pakistan would sooner or later be incorporated back into Mother India. Such veiled threats provided the perfect foil for bureaucrats and generals trained in the best colonial tradition to whip up frenzy after frenzy about India’s hegemonic designs and thereby thwart the nation-building process even before it had begun.
and the cultural legacy of Mughal north India. Thus, east Pakistan seceded in 1971 – still the only instance of a majority population seceding from a minority in the modern era – and ever since the remaining underrepresented ethnic-national groups have continued to challenge the unitary state. Throughout the cold war, ethnicnationalists and the Pakistani left worked collectively towards what they perceived to be a shared goal: to transform the unitary state into a socialist federation. Until the Sino-Soviet split the alliance of leftists and nationalists had simple choices to make about its cold war alignments. Subsequently, matters became more complicated. Even so, not until the collapse of the Soviet Union did things change dramatically. The left fractured (even while some small Trotskyite factions attempted to fill the void), while the once convergent interests of the various ethnic-nationalists started to diverge. The Pashtun middle class became increasingly co-opted into the civil bureaucracy and military. Radical Pashtun nationalism had already been dealt a decisive blow by the cultivation of jihadi militancy from 1977 onwards. Sindhi nationalism developed in an ambivalent direction following the rise of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Sindhi leadership and the subsequent emergence of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the 1980s, which marked the culmination of the creeping demographic and political changes in urban Sindh that had started with the Partition migrations. The Baloch remained the least integrated and alienated from the state but the wider objective environment ensured that Baloch nationalism started to become more exclusive and, in some cases, openly chauvinistic.
crisis of Identity anew
Following the events of 11 September 2001 and the direct influx of imperialist forces into Afghanistan, Pakistan’s crisis of identity has erupted back into the spotlight. In short, Baloch and Pashtun ethnicnationalists of various stripes have adapted their politics to the imperatives of the “New Great Game”. At a time when the
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nation never made
And indeed a nation – Pakistan – has never become. Sindhi, Baloch, Bengali and Pashtun ethnic-nationalities have never acquiesced to the structure of power in which Punjabis and Urdu-speakers dominate under the guise of defending Islam
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is affiliated with the People’s Rights Movement in Pakistan and is also with the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
march 6, 2010
need for leftists and ethnic-nationalists to coalesce around a broad anti-establishment, anti-imperialist platform is perhaps greater than ever, it appears as if the trend is in the opposite direction. The Awami National Party (ANP) in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) in Balochistan are the two ethnicnationalist organisations operating in Pashtun majority areas. The ANP has made clear that it is hedging its bets on the United States (US), throwing its weight behind the “war on terror” in the hope that the empire is committed to not just taking on the Taliban and Al Qaida militarily but also reversing the radicalisation of Pashtun society. For its part the US also appears to be patronising the ANP following its resounding victory in the NWFP provincial elections of 2008, when it defeated the alliance of religious parties, Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which had itself come to power in 2002 on the back of a broad wave of anti-American sentiment following the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in late 2001. The PkMAP, in contrast, has been far more circumspect. It has guardedly maintained an anti-jihadist posture whilst continuing to project itself as opposed to the dictates of the US. In practice the PkMAP is deeply implicated in the war economy, and particularly the highly lucrative illicit trade in guns and drugs, and therefore pragmatic material concerns rather than clear ideological principles are likely to determine its posture. In other words it is unlikely that the PkMAP will attempt to reclaim the mantle of anti-imperialism from the religious right and from which the secular ANP has almost completely distanced itself.
In Balochistan the situation is far less clear, and to a certain extent therefore, potentially more explosive. Here too the major ethnic-nationalist formations have drifted from the anti-imperialism of the past. An increasingly popular brand of radical nationalists is calling for an independent Balochistan and claims to be willing to accept assistance from any and all external forces that support this goal. A number of militant groups are engaging
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Pakistani security forces in a low intensity insurgency, and some militant leaders openly ask for the US and other western powers to support them. While it is impossible to prove conclusively if these requests have been heeded, it is far from fantastical to believe that the Pentagon is playing its hand in this theatre of the “New Great Game”. Those nationalists calling for the establishment of a meaningful federal system in which the rights and resources of Balochistan are protected are meanwhile finding it increasingly difficult to survive politically in a rapidly radicalising environment. Reputations do not seem to matter: even Akhtar Mengal, a one-time chief minister of the province and head of the most powerful tribal formations in the province, is struggling to retain a political presence. The moderate nationalists appear unwilling to reach out to the left in the Punjab and urban centres outside Balochistan, even though the alliance would suit both. The militant Baloch nationalists as well as the ANP and PkMAP have – for varying reasons – little interest in depicting themselves as anti-imperialist and therefore allying themselves with the anti-imperialist left. Of course, the anti-imperialist left is small and weak. Most “progressives” in Pakistan at the present time – which means to say the upwardly mobile, educated sections of society – have thrown in their lot with the US in the epic battle of civilisation and democracy versus obscurantism and autocracy. Whether or not recent revelations made in London by the beacons of civilisation and democracy that negotiations with the obscurantist and autocratic Taliban (or at least the less obscurantist and autocratic amongst them) are necessary will test the resolve of these “progressives” is a moot point.
In fact these are secondary considerations. If all of the various ethnic-nationalities within Pakistan – or at the very least those who speak for them – are convinced that they want to have nothing to do with Pakistan, then international powers will not have the good grace to convince them otherwise. It is the responsibility of the progressives in urban centres, and particularly in Punjab, to convince ethnic-nationalists that there is the possibility of a new social contract that can be forged collectively. There can be no misgiving about imperialism’s role in this regard. Indeed, to a certain extent, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists’ belief that the US is committed to emancipating them from the Pakistani state underlines the complete failure of progressives to offer nationalists an alternative political vision that is built upon a clear commitment to protecting the rights of all nations whilst also addressing the class question without ambiguity.
turning Back on class
Pakistan will not collapse tomorrow, and it will definitely not be taken over by mad mullahs who will wield its nuclear arsenal against the western countries. Pakistan, is, however, ravaged by serious fragmentation along ethnic-national lines which is being exacerbated by the “Great Power” conflict that is unfolding across the region. To some extent, the PPP government currently in power at the centre is pursuing a political strategy that seeks to mend bridges across ethnic-national lines. But if the PPP is depicting itself as the glue in an extremely fragile federal structure, it has turned its back on the politics of class that it once championed. There is no reason to believe that the class and national questions cannot be addressed together by an alliance of leftist and ethnic-national forces, just like there is no reason to believe that banking on the US will loosen the grip of radical Islamist ideologies on segments of Pakistani society. The question, as ever, is whether the subjective forces pushing for progressive change are clear about what needs to be done, and then whether a critical mass can be forged that can outline a clear strategy to ensure that what needs to get done does get done.
What the “progressives” should be asking themselves is whether the US can forge, or perhaps even more importantly, is interested in forging a new identity for Pakistan. At stake here are not the tired questions of moderate and inclusive as opposed to radical and exclusive interpretations of Islam or whether Islam should play any role in the public sphere.
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