Pashtun nationalism — by Dr Manzur Ejaz

Most of the time, secular Pashtun nationalists have highlighted their economic deprivation. But if the Pashtuns’ share in the army, the bureaucracy and the economy in Pakistan is higher than the proportion of their population, such an argument becomes a very hard sell

In response to my last column (“Competing in Afghanistan”, Daily Times, August 12), a reader raised a very interesting question: what are prospects of secular Pashtun nationalism if the present turmoil across the Durand Line subsides? Although it is very difficult to make any forecasts in such a complicated and fluid situation, it appears that there are more chances that the existing state boundaries will continue to exist for a long time to come than otherwise.

Historically, secular Pashtun nationalism was much stronger in the first two decades of Pakistan’s existence. During that period, Pashtunistan was a real issue for Pakistani rulers, and hostility between Islamabad and Kabul were quite high. Afghanistan was probably the only country that voted against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan were involved in supporting low-level subversive activities against each other.

It has been reported by multiple sources that during the Bhutto period, the first religious subversive group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was organised, funded and trained by the PPP government. The rise of Socialist parties in Kabul and General Zia-ul Haq in Pakistan, the Soviet invasion and the heavy US involvement changed all the parameters. The secular forces in Afghanistan, nationalist or otherwise, were cleansed by rising religious groups. Therefore, secular Pakistani Pashtun nationalists had no counterparts in Afghanistan to link up with.

Nationalistic fervour among secular Pakistani Pashtuns had started showing weakness when the Awami National Party decided to join hands with Pakistan National Alliance or Qaumi Ittihad to oust Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. The late Dr Feroz Ahmed published a very insightful article in his Urdu magazine, Pakistan Forum, identifying the reasons for the fading of Pashtun nationalism, symbolised by Nasim Wali Khan joining hands with conservative centralist forces.

It was in the late 70s when Dr Ahmed had argued that integration of the economy of the NWFP had caused the erosion of Pashtun nationalism, as increasing economic interest within Pakistan had taken away its material basis. Dr Ahmed’s incisive analysis was based on the early phase of emerging Pashtun economic interests in Pakistan. Since then, his observation has been verified by the further intensification of Pashtun migration to Punjab and Karachi. Besides the mammoth movement of labour, Pashtun entrepreneurs started dominating certain sectors like transportation in most big cities of Pakistan.

The rise of the Taliban and other extremist religious forces and the ensuing destruction further accelerated the migration of secular-minded Pashtuns to other cities of Pakistan or abroad. It is true that despite this demographic shift, secular political parties like the ANP and the PPP won the last elections. However, a closer look reveals that successful secular parties in the NWFP hardly have any inclination towards Pashtun nationalism beyond renaming the province. However, a small section of intelligentsia still carries the nationalistic aspirations and sees an opening for redrawing the boundaries on the basis of ethnicity.

It is argued that even the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan is an expression of Pashtun nationalism in a certain way. This time around, Afghan Pashtuns have deployed religion to keep maintain their domination in Kabul against the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, which has made significant gains. This argument is further supported by pointing out the absence of Talibanisation in the non-Pashtuns areas of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Pashtun Taliban have acted quite differently from their Afghan brethren. While the Afghan Taliban adopted a policy of non-intervention in Pakistan or even in Northern Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pashtun Taliban manifested their aspiration to change the state and indeed the entire ideological make-up of Pakistan. In other words, the Pakistani Pashtun Taliban have acted as a centralist rather than a separatist ideological force, notwithstanding their temporary takeover of certain tribal areas. This shows how much Pashtun nationalism has weakened over the last thirty years.

Pashtun nationalism, religious or secular, has not shown typical characteristics of separatism. For example, the suppression of mother tongue is used by nationalists all around the world to highlight their exclusivity. Even secular Pashtuns have not shown this tendency. As a matter of fact, the NWFP and Balochistan led the way in adopting Urdu as their provincial language after the 1970 elections. During the entire political career of secular politicians from the NWFP and Balochistan, the language issue has never been highlighted.

Most of the time, secular Pashtun nationalists have highlighted their economic deprivation. But if the Pashtuns’ share in the army, the bureaucracy and the economy in Pakistan is higher than the proportion of their population, such an argument becomes a very hard sell. If the common Pashtun finds it more profitable to stay within Pakistan, the secular nationalist elite will remain an ineffective marginalised force. The future of secular Pashtun nationalism will also depend on the development of the state of Pakistan.

The writer can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 19 August 2009



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