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Thursday, April 12, 2012

VIEW: When the state becomes ideological —Shahab Usto

Pakistan, like a multi-ethnic, multi-sect and autocratic Sudan, has failed to evolve such a democratic or societal consensus on its ‘ideological identity’

Ideological states or entities being inherently schismatic, unleash countervailing forces, and more so when they grow weaker. ‘Ideological’ Pakistan is coming to grips with the countervailing forces in the form of increasing nationalist, ethnic and sectarian challenges.

Ironically, Pakistan stands closer to Sudan than Israel or Iran. Israeli Zionist identity has faced internal and external threats, which it has met using a democratically-evolved consensus on retaining the state’s identity. The enormous support of the US-led west has also come to the aid of Israel, if not its identity, as a quid pro quo for protecting the former’s interests in the region.

Iran’s Islamist identity, with its attendant anti-US-Israel and anti-Salafi-Arab overtones, has remained threatened by internal, regional and global adversaries. Iran has legitimised this identity through a proto-democratic polity and a popularly recognised institution of the Wilayat-al-Faqih (the guardianship of the jurists), which ‘lead and govern Islamic society’. As a result, Iran’s Islamist identity has faced little threat from inside. It is the US-led west, Israel and the neighbouring Arab states that perceive it as a game changer in the regional balance of power. Hence, efforts are afoot to deny it nuclear capability.

Pakistan, like a multi-ethnic, multi-sect and autocratic Sudan, has failed to evolve such a democratic or societal consensus on its ‘ideological identity’. Islam has been used as a larger banner overarching the state. But under it lies many a sect. True, the constitution and laws must comply with the Quran and Sunnah, but where is the machinery required to interpret and rationalise Quran and Sunnah to remove scholastic disharmony? The Council of Islamic Ideology that was meant to perform this very important function has long fallen victim to the ills that it should have treated — religio-political schisms — in the first place.

As a result, the state has become a sectarian battlefield. A violent and partisan version of Islam has emerged and crowded out the moderate and inclusive narrative of Islam. The state has lost the ‘ideological’ legitimacy in the wake of all-round religious and sectarian divisions. The powerful and violent sectarian forces are now challenging its writ and internal and external policies.

The state also used the ‘ideology’ to negate the multiplicity of ethno-cultural reality, the identities of the sub-national groups that pre-existed the state of Pakistan. They had put faith and credit in the 1940 resolution, which envisaged a confederation of ‘states’ among the Muslim majority provinces of united India. The prospects of regaining autonomy from a socio-politically dominant Hindu majority and the resulting political rewards for the local feudal elites and the nascent Muslim bureaucracy belonging to the UP, CP and Bihar, had galvanised the three major nationalities — Sindhi, Punjabi, Bengali — to opt for Pakistan. However, the Pashtuns and the Baloch had resisted joining the new state until the last moment, and even after the creation of the state.

These nationalities turned ‘hostile’ when an autocratic and centrist state used ‘Islamist identity’ to override the ‘national question’ that had arisen when the Bengali, Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch leadership challenged the validity of this identity. They also resisted the ‘machinations’ of the Punjabi military and feudal leadership and the muhajir (immigrants) bureaucracy and intelligentsia to create One Unit. The ‘identity’ politics of the state continued until its spinoff, Bengali identity politics, broke away the eastern limb of the state.

Even then, the state refused to give up on its identity politics. The dissolution of One Unit gave way to multi-ethnic provinces. Thus, large chunks of the Seraikis were included in Punjab; Balochistan contained swathes of Pushtun areas; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa received the Hazaras, which previously made part of Punjab, though they were ethnically distinct from both Pashtuns and Punjabis, and Sindh, where many mohajirs had settled, divided along a rural-urban divide. Today, every province has both sectarian and ethnic conflicts. The state, bound by its identity, is increasingly failing to resolve these conflicts using constitutional and democratic tools.

Instead, socio-economic crises are fanning these conflicts. The federal kitty is in the red. The provinces are now burdened with running the social sector that has been devolved to them in the wake of constitutional reforms. Therefore, ethnic and sectarian frictions are more likely to increase in the coming years.

Already, provincial politics is increasingly resonating with ethnic sentiments. The devolution of administrative and financial powers from the Centre to the provinces will further reinforce a tug of war among the various ethnic groups for the allocation of resources and utilisation of powers. South Punjab is clamouring against injustices, as does Hazara, and Quetta is an even more dangerous trajectory. But Sindh is the real prism of the emergence of nationalist politics. Many a sociological and demographic factor favours this trend. On the one hand, the Urdu-speaking political leadership is facing the crunch of the Pashtun influx in Karachi, forcing it to launch a violent ‘resistance’ against the ANP, the Pashtun representative. On the other, an increasing number of Sindhi-speaking middle class are taking to the urban areas, particularly Karachi. They are forced to leave their rural haunts by a combination of factors — lack of economic opportunities, decrepit social and physical infrastructures, tribal feuds, worsening law and order, and a search for better education. But they lack political support, let alone an ethnic militia of their own to protect them from an array of organised ethnic militias blocking their way in Karachi.

Sindh is faced with a touch-and-go situation. The PPP government has failed to contain both the feudal-tribal oppression in rural society and the ethnic killings in the metropolis. No wonder, obituaries are being written on the PPP’s future in Sindh. As the outpouring of nationalist sentiments on the sudden and ‘unusual’ death of a Sindhi nationalist Bashir Qureshi show, Sindh may also turn into another Balochistan.

The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at

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