State and ethnic conflict in Pakistan — Dr Rubina Saigol

State and ethnic conflict
Monday, September 28, 2009
Dr Rubina Saigol

The writer is an independent researcher specialising in social development

In a highly centralised and authoritarian state, the rights of the federating units tend to be undermined. The issue of provincial autonomy has acquired added urgency in the face of simmering discontent and alienation among the provinces against the monopolisation of power and resources by the centre. The state in Pakistan has engaged in prolonged and serious conflicts with four out of five of its original units because of the denial of provincial autonomy.

When the state was initially imagined, a federal structure was envisaged. The Pakistan Resolution of 1940 declared that “areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” Maximum autonomy and sovereign control were inherent in the very foundation of the new state. However, increasing centralisation led to the construction of a state that was severely distorted.

Religious nationalism, which in the struggle for Pakistan was a unifying force, had outgrown its validity once Pakistan was created. As Hamza Alavi points out, “the moment that Pakistan was established, Muslim nationalism in India had fulfilled itself and outlived its purpose. Now there was a fresh equation of privilege and deprivation to be reckoned with in the new state. Virtually overnight there were ethnic redefinitions. Punjabis who were the most numerous could boast of a greater percentage of people with higher education and were most firmly entrenched in both the army (being 85 per cent of the armed forces) and the bureaucracy. They were the new bearers of privilege, the true ‘Muslim’ for whom Pakistan was created. The weaker ‘salariats’ of Bengal, Sindh, Sarhad and Balochistan did not share this and accordingly they redefined their identities as Bengalis, Sindhis, Pathans and Baloch who now demanded fairer shares for themselves.” The authoritarian state attempted national integration through the use of religion in an attempt to weaken language-based ethnic nationalism. For example, Ayub Khan declared in 1962 that “it is immaterial whether you are a Bengali or a Sindhi, a Balochi or a Pathan or a Punjabi – we are all knit together by the bond of Islam.”

The sense of deprivation and anger among the federating units began as early as the 50s when the language conflict broke out over Urdu being declared the national language despite Bengali representing the language of the majority. Moreover, the foreign exchange earnings from East Pakistani jute went into the development of West Pakistan while the Eastern half was deprived of development. The economic disparities were such that when Ayub Khan seized power in 1958, the per capita income differential between the two wings was 30 per cent. By the end of the first five-year plan in 1965, this difference increased to 45 per cent and by the time of Ayub Khan’s removal in 1968, it had grown to 61 per cent. The West Pakistani rulers were unwilling to share power with East Pakistanis or recognise them as equals. When the Awami League won 151 out 153 national assembly seats in the 1970 elections, the military and civilian rulers of West Pakistan refused to transfer power to the legally elected party. A reign of terror was unleashed on East Pakistan, the leaders were declared traitors and conspirators, and finally the Punjab-dominated army committed untold atrocities upon the Bengalis leading to a resistance movement which culminated with the separation of East Pakistan from its exploitative western wing.

In West Pakistan, the creation of one-unit in 1955 led to the fear of erasure of cultural and ethnic identities among the units. Balochistan, where the Shahi Jirga had voted to join Pakistan, was repeatedly denied its just share and rights in the new federation. There were resistance movements in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. In the 70s, an armed movement began in which combat helicopters were used against 55,000 Baloch guerillas fighting 80,000 troops. Around 15,000 Baloch were killed in the army action. In 2004, the military built cantonments and resistance against militarisation by the centre led to the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti and seething resentment against the centre. The capture of Baloch resources such as gas, zinc, gold, copper and marble, and the failure to pay just royalty have led to alienation among Baloch youth who have joined liberation movements. The disparities are glaring: the per capita income of Balochis is 60 per cent of Punjabis and their representation in civil services is around one fourth compared to other provinces. The literacy rate is the lowest in Pakistan while its share of industrialisation in the 80s was 0.7 per cent. In recent times, the largest number of missing people was from Balochistan.

The state was once again embroiled in violent conflicts in the decades of the 80s and 90s in Sindh. August-December 1983 saw a massive civil disobedience movement in Sindh, during which several activists courted arrest and risked imprisonment and state violence. Helicopter gunships were used by the military to suppress the revolt in which hundreds were killed and wounded. Selig Harrison reports that in this uprising, 45,000 Punjabi troops faced make-shift Sindhi guerilla outfits and the Sindhi death toll came to 300 people. According to Shahid Kardar, “the alleged death of 50 students at the Thori Railway crossing and the horror of the action taken to suppress the Sindhis in 1986 have left very deep wounds in Sindh.” Sindh contributes 67 per cent of the national revenue and receives roughly only 23 per cent as its share in the NFC award. The tail-end of the Indus receives so little water in the IRSA system that Sindh’s agriculture is threatened with extinction. The insistence of Punjab that the Kalabagh Dam should be constructed is yet another wound that threatens violence in this historically peaceful and tolerant land of Sufi saints. In the 90s, Karachi saw a prolonged conflict between the state and the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs with crimes committed by all sides in the conflict. Even though the Sindh Assembly was the first to vote to join Pakistan, Sindhis have not received their due share and rights as the province that feeds the country.

The latest conflict is the military action in Pakhtoonkhwa to root out militants created and nurtured by the state itself. Scores of civilians have been killed by both the military and militants. Pakhtoonkhwa too has historical grievances. Its leaders were declared traitors for their commitment to peace and composite nationalism. It has not received just royalty for its water resources, and its objections to the Kalabagh Dam are ignored by Punjab. The intransigent attitude of Punjab in objecting to the change of name to Pakhtoonkhwa can have serious consequences for a state locked in struggles with its units. The ethnic and linguistic sharing of identities across the Durand Line can ultimately challenge the integrity of a state perpetually at war with itself.

A highly centralised state has suppressed the unique and multiple identities of the federating units. There is a long concurrent legislative list that encroaches upon provincial rights. The only way for the state to survive is to recognise the rights of the sovereign and autonomous units and, with the exception of defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication all subjects should be in the provincial list only. The NFC award needs to be based on multiple criteria including under-development, population and revenue generation. The lower riparian should receive its just share of the waters of the Indus river. Until the state dismantles its colonial structure of exploiting the units as colonies, conflict and insecurity are likely to persist.