Ethnic fault lines remain sharp in post-poll Pakistan

By Zia Khan

Islamabad: If democracy is supposed to bridge the trust deficit among communities and fit them into cohesive national framework, it has not quite worked in Pakistan. The country was always bitterly divided along ethic lines and the results of the just-concluded elections once again prove that the deep ethic fault lines will continue to leave national polity unstable.

There two important takeaways from the elections: one, there’s no national party with a pan-Pakistan appeal; and two, ethic parties remain strong in their citadels.

Though Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League won a majority in the national parliament and the mandate to form the government single-handedly, the victory was due to its overwhelming support base in Punjab, the most populous and electorally significant of the four provinces in the country. The presence of Sharif, a two-time prime minister, remained marginalized in other three provinces where mostly regional parties, which thrive either on lingual or ethnic sentiments, had major electoral gains.

Internal turmoil continues in Pakistan after polls. AFP

Internal turmoil continues in Pakistan after polls. AFP

Hard-line religious groups haven’t performed in a way matching their street power or social influence but they did win some constituencies in the conservative parts of Pukhtun belt bordering Afghanistan to remain a force to reckon with in national politics.

The Pakistan Peoples Party of Asif Ali Zardari, which for past four decades was supposed to be the only national party, was restricted to its stronghold of rural Sindh. The urban parts of the province, including the southern port city of Karachi, were swept by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement that represents millions of those who migrated from India to settle in Pakistan after the creation of the country in 1947.

The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf group of former cricket star Imran Khan was restricted to the northwestern Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province, the hotbed of Al Qaeda inspired violence, where politics is mostly influenced by the situation in Afghanistan. Southwestern Balochistan, a minerals-rich province where Pakistani military is struggling to curb a nationalistic insurgency seeking liberation, was divided between Pukhtun and Baloch nationalist groups and religious parties.

With so many players seeking their share in the power pie, it seems impossible to have harmony between the national government and provincial administrations, a problem the country faced for past five years. But the emergence of ethnic groups as political entities in Pakistan and the gradual marginalization of the national parties are phenomena as old as the nation itself.

Many blame the powerful military establishment that directly ruled the country for more than half of its 66 years of existence as an independent country for the prominence of the ethnic groups. It remained a destabilizing factor even during the civilian dispensations, most of them fragile and spineless to take bold policy calls.

For Professor Roohul Amin Khan what has really aggravated the sense of deprivation among communities was the way the military rulers tried to centralize power by denying them political, social and economic rights. Khan, who teaches communications studies at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, said the military used religion as a force to unite ethnic groups in the federation instead of ensuring their civil rights and economic empowerment.

"That what caused Pakistan to be half of itself," he remarked, referring to 1971 disintegration of the country that gave birth to Bangladesh. Hardly any lesson, it seems, was learnt in Pakistan from one of most disgraceful events in the nation’s history. Most of what caused the disintegration of the country merely 25 years after it came into being still looks to be happening unbridled.

The ethnic groups feel deprived both socially and economically in Pakistan even today. And there are stark examples of this. For instance, Mohajirs, the millions of Urdu-speaking people who migrated from India to settle in Karachi after Pakistan came into being in 1947.

More than six decades and three generations down the line since then these communities, mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, are still alienated from the mainstream. Life has never been easy for them in the Islamic republic that was created and tried to be kept united through religion. They remained socially unaccepted, economically cornered and politically marginalized until 80s.

In the decade of 60s when military general Ayub Khan ruled Pakistan, Mohajirs faced death and persecution in the hands of ethnic Pukhtuns from the north who flocked Karachi in search of jobs in the city’s industrial districts close to harbour.

"All this continued to happen and state of Pakistan either remained oblivion or partner in crime," recalled Muhammad Bashir Khan, a university professor on politics, who lived in the city for four decades.

However, Mohajirs were not the only community having been pushed to the wall by what was the mainstream Pakistan—the powerful military, the shrewd civil bureaucracy, political elite in Punjab province and religious right with unbridled street power.

In 70s soon after the disintegration of Pakistan, fighter jets from country’s air force bombed tribesmen living in mountainous Balochistan—the poorest and most backward of four provinces. Some of Baloch tribal chiefs were accused of being rebels of the state. In the northern province of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, ethnic Pukhtuns of Afghan origin always remained suspects for powerful politico-military establishment because first they opposed the creating of Pakistan and then due to their socialist ideology. Their alienation in late 70s and throughout 80s intensified when Pakistan supported jihad against Russia in Afghanistan backed by the United Nations.

"That was natural. Pukhtun political leaders were just on the wrong side of the global divide," commented Abdul Waseem Khattak, a Peshawar-based historian.

He was referring to the socialist ideology of the National Awami Party (NAP) of Wali Khan at the time when Cold War was at its peak and Pakistani establishment was supporting the capitalist world.

And then the deposition of Pakistan’s first elected prime minister and most popular of political leaders, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977 and subsequent hanging two years later by the then coup leader General Ziaul Haq triggered anti-establishment sentiment in interior (rural Sindh province, alienating another ethnic community from the mainstream.

No hope

Results of the parliamentary elections have just been a reflective of how bitterly polity is polarized on ethnic basis. And what makes things even worrying is a fact that the situation is likely to remain the same in future, argued Umer Draz Nangiana, an Islamabad-based political correspondent for leading English daily.

"I don’t see any change anytime soon unless something dramatic alters the whole spectrum of political landscape," added Draz.

"You need leaders with charisma to be acceptable for all irrespective of ethnic or lingual affiliations…is there someone like that? No, not at least in the existing lost of Pakistani political figures."

"Not even Nawaz Sharif," Nangiana remarked, “He will have to long way for that."

And no hope at all was his answer to the question whether the PPP of Zardari will ever be able to revive itself as a national party like it was under its slain leader Benazir Bhutto. Until something dramatic happens as Nangiana puts it, Pakistan will have to learn how to survive with a polity compartmentalized largely on belief and ethnic concern, an art many nations in the world, including neighboring India, seem to have mastered to near perfection.

Updated Date: May 24, 2013 17:51 PM

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