Prospects for a new Punjab

It seems that the a sizeable faction of the urban middle-class, heteronormative male, Sunni Muslim, rightwing Punjabis is now challenging its own stereotypical positions

Prospects for a new Punjab

In Pakistan, as a rule of thumb, if you were an urban middle-class, heteronormative male, Sunni Muslim, rightwing Punjabi, you were a supporter of Pakistani military and the military must have loved you back. This is now changing. All such Punjabis do not unconditionally support military’s political and strategic adventures nor does the military bother about them.

Here lies the greatest crisis as well as opportunity for Pakistan -- to either change for good or sink into a deeper morass. Punjab is the key battleground, not only because it is the country’s most populous province (electoral victory in Punjab means a majority of seats in the parliament), but also because the bulk of Pakistan’s military recruits, bureaucratic elite, and intelligentsia come from it.

Barring certain regions and classes of Punjab, the Pakistani state has been repressive to the country’s minorities defined variously along the lines of ethnicity, religion and sexuality. In Balochistan, there have been four insurgencies since 1947, all of which have been suppressed militarily. Pashtuns and their areas have been used as a breeding ground for recruiting ‘non-state actors’ to pursue larger strategic interests. The first instance was in 1947 during Jinnah’s lifetime when armed tribesmen were mobilised to ‘liberate’ Kashmir from the tyranny of the Dogra Raj. From 1980 onwards, it assumed a different magnitude altogether as thousands of men were trained and armed in the name of jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The fallout of such a policy -- especially with the Soviet exit, infighting among Mujahidin factions, and the rise of the Taliban -- is all very well known. Similarly, the impact of Pakistani military’s reversal of policy after 9-11 and the subsequent decade of violence and terrorism in the region is also well documented.

Sindhis haven’t been spared either. From the imposition of One Unit to the murdering of Sindhis in the name of clearing the area from dacoits, Sindh has experienced state repression for decades. Karachi, country’s largest metropolis, has witnessed ‘cleanup’ operations since the 1990s, having resulted in the extra-judicial killings of hundreds of young men. The brutal history of the state and its activities is too long and known to be repeated here in detail.

What has changed is the scope of such practices which has widened to areas and classes which were previously excluded from it. So far, the specific Punjabi class described above was more or less safe. This is because most of them were the biggest beneficiaries of the state patronage system which worked towards the benefit of Punjab. Punjabi nationalism was subsumed within the larger Pakistani nationalism. In particular, since 1977, this class of Punjabis has been nurtured to become the most vocal supporter of the military and of its actions in eliminating, whether physically or electorally, progressive political alternatives.


The decade of the 1970s was important as Pakistan had finally entered the phase of mass politics. There was no going back to the days of an elitist, controlled democracy of the 1950s or to the indirect elections of the 1960s. Also, the emergence of a strong industrial base in Punjab, and Karachi, owed its existence to the preferential treatment given by the bureaucratic-military nexus ruling the country under ‘Field Marshal’ Ayub Khan. Much of these capital gains were undone by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policy of nationalisation. It was not the nationalisation of large-scale industry and financial institutions that hurt the vast majority of Punjab’s new bourgeoisie, but the later phase of nationalisation in which even medium scale industrial units were not spared.

The 1977 Nizam-i-Mustafa movement against Bhutto, therefore, largely comprised of disgruntled elements from the Bazar who had suffered because of Bhutto’s economic policies. It was this class which was cultivated by General Ziaul Haq when he took over. His policy of restoring industrial units to their original owners and overtures in the form of Islamisation struck a chord with them and they, in return, became strong supporters of Zia. The effort was to transform this anti-PPP, rightwing support into an effective, electoral vote base. This is where the Sharif family comes into play.

Nawaz Sharif’s family business had been taken over during Bhutto’s regime. His father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, like many other upwardly mobile traders and medium-scale industrialists, was a religiously inclined person. The hatred for Bhutto, love for Islam, and championing of the interests of the business community projected the Sharif family to become political heirs of the new mode of Punjabi politics introduced during Zia’s regime.

Over the decades, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif -- with direct support from Zia and under the larger than life shadow of his father -- consolidated anti-Bhutto, pro-Islam, rightwing vote bank in Punjab. In this endeavour, he had direct support from the military which had no problem cracking down on the PPP support base in Punjab, viewed as suspicious because of its ostensible leftist claims and links with trade unions and rights activists. Eventually, it was only through rigging, persecution, media trial and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination that they managed to exorcise Punjab of the ghost of Bhutto and his leftist rhetoric.

The high points of Sharif-military collaboration were, of course, the elections of 1988 and 1990. It has now been accepted by the military generals themselves that they were involved in funding a coalition of rightwing political parties under the banner of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to fight Pakistan People’s Party led by Benazir Bhutto. In 1988, PPP had won majority of National Assembly seats from Punjab. In the elections for provincial assemblies three days later, agencies behind IJI worked overtime to ensure a wafer-thin majority for Nawaz Sharif in the Punjab Assembly.

In 1993, a faction of Muslim League with less than a dozen members of the assembly nominated their chief minister for Punjab while PPP formed the government at the centre and became a coalition partner in Punjab. It means that PPP has not been allowed to have its own chief minister in Punjab since 1977. Ruling the centre without power in Punjab meant that PPP had no effective control over the country’s most populous province. Benazir Bhutto once described her position as that of "a glorified mayor of Islamabad".


After coming to power with military’s help and establishing his own power base through an extensive patronage network, Nawaz Sharif has gradually become -- to use his own words -- ideological (nazariyati). Over the years, he has mastered the art of electoral politics, managing it with or without the support of the military.

With PPP’s gradual decline, Sharif emerged as the only popular leader -- especially after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007. It was important to cut him to size.The rebranding of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan was part of this process. Though the party had been in existence for more than a decade, it only picked up steam from 2008 onwards as the military realised an urgent need for a political alternative in Punjab. The presumption must have been that the rightwing Punjabi vote is mainly under military’s control, and it will mass migrate to a new party now recognised by the military as its own.

With a stereotypical understanding of Punjabis’ shifting loyalties, it was expected the votebank would shift to PTI as it did during the early 2000s when PML-Q was formed by General Pervez Musharraf. But this is proving to be more difficult than expected, largely because the core constituency for both the Sharifs and military is the same. The Sharif brothers have been able to create their own support base within this group.

Of course, there is a lot more than simply a tiff between the Sharifs and the military on Punjab’s turf that is responsible for a possible change in Punjab’s relationship with the military. It is more about local dynamics, both in urban and rural areas, that is changing the landscape of Punjab. An understanding of these processes of change is vital, though it falls outside the scope of a more broad-brushed approach that I have taken in this article. Dr Ali Jan’swork on a case study of Okara and that of Dr Umair Javed on the traders of Lahore offers a detailed analysis of the everyday lives of men and women in rural and urban Punjab, changing class structures and mechanisms of control.

Sharifs are benefiting from these developments at the local level, even if they are not directly responsible for the changes that are taking place. Nor do these socio-political and economic shifts necessarily result in aspirations for some kind of a democratic revolution. But even the aspiration for economic gains, social mobility, personal liberties and a good life in general does create a sense of discontent and unease that keeps Punjab simmering.


Coming back to a more generalised overview of the situation, it can be said that in targeting Nawaz Sharif, the military is trying to dismantle the very electoral machinery it had so assiduously built over the years as a counter for progressive politics in Punjab. More importantly, it is targeting the very people it had always felt were its main clientele and support base. Here, too, it will be important to remember that a dramatic shift in the loyalties of this class has not taken place, though it is safe to presume that a sizeable part of it remains committed to the Sharifs.

At the same time, within the same group of Punjabis are mostly the newly urbanised, aspiring middle classes and professionals who are vocal, almost virulent in their hatred for the Sharifs, politics in general, and inability of the democratic structure to deliver. They provide the core anchor to military-led political shenanigans. The real battle in these elections will be between these two factions of the same class of Punjabis with different ideological positions towards the role of military in general.

That is why I believe this is a moment of opportunity as well. For once, Punjab is changing. The massive reception received by Nawaz Sharif on his return to Pakistan on July 13 is an example of that. In the heart of central Punjab, thousands of paramilitary forces had to be called in to crackdown on the workers and supporters of N-League which had turned up in massive numbers to welcome Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, in his recent statements, has not shied away from directly blaming the military for interference in politics, and is holding them responsible for country’s woes in general. His narrative is getting a lot of traction in Punjab which is historically known to be unconditionally supportive of the military.

The criticism of military as an institution and its political role is not just coming from the ‘usual suspects’ -- Baloch, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Mohajirs, or a handful of Punjabi leftists -- but a sizeable faction of urban middle-class, heteronormative male, Sunni Muslim, rightwing Punjabis. If this momentum continues, chances are that the democratic process will be strengthened and the unelected forces will have to take a step back. But if they continue with their rather fascist mode of action and succeed in managing the desired electoral outcome of a hung parliament, it will strengthen the role of the military in an unprecedented manner. It will be unprecedented because now the state not only has the capacity to act as an efficient fascist state, but also, in the absence of any international pressure, to actually act like a fascist state as well.


Prospects for a new Punjab