The tribal way

September 29, 2019

If meaningful change and development have to start in Pakistan the tribal-dominated social structure has to be transformed

The tribal way

Every society has a cohesive base that keeps it intact and functional. The nature and extent of functionality of a society depends on its dominant structure. The level of development, whether infrastructural, institutional, attitudinal or behavioural, largely depends on the social structure of a country or region.

Tribalism has been the dominant social structure in Pakistan. It has a huge impact on the nature of functionality of a society, the texture of social institutions and formation of social attitudes and the translation of these attitudes into dominant social behaviours.

A tribal society is the one where people are organised into various tribes, sub-tribes and clans. The members of these tribal social tiers are closely-knit and have a strong sense of allegiance to the tribe, its normative framework and values. A tribal society also has a very elaborate social networking with other tribes. This maintains the status quo in that society and makes social change extremely difficult.

These features of tribalism are also found Pakistani society to varying degrees in different provinces and various regions within these provinces. For instance, tribal characteristics have been deeply entrenched in Balochistan and former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The interior Sindh and rural Punjab also have strong tribal structures and features. In Pakistan, we give tribalism different names. For instance, in the Punjab it is called the biradri (brotherhood) and among Pakhtuns it is called Pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code). The Punjabis form the largest ethnic group in Pakistan followed by the Pakhtuns.

The inherent characteristics of a tribal social structure are incompatible with the ethos of modernity, development and urbanity. Tribalism in medieval times had a value to organise people in communities to facilitate their lives but it does not have any appeal for a civilised and enlightened man, woman or community. The problem with a tribal society is that the decisions are taken collectively where the agreement of all or majority members of a tribe or clan is not necessarily required. Rather, tribal chieftains or a coterie of influential persons make decisions and take actions on behalf of the tribe.

Through this mechanism, the affairs of tribes have been managed since time immemorial. A negative aspect of this has been that every tribal individual has to suffer due to decisions taken by the coterie. In short, it is the apolitical, highly collective and superstition-based social structure of the tribal society, which is part of multi-dimensional problems of Pakistan including militancy, failure of democracy, and brain-drain.

A very important feature of tribalism has been an authoritarian family or clan-based leadership. Apart from the founding fathers, if we look at the history of Pakistani leadership, almost all political leaders have not only come from key tribal families in their areas but also founded ‘political’ parties to protect and promote the family interests rather than public interest. Most political parties, whether secular or religious, have largely been familial organisations.

In a tribal society violence and conflict are common. Any effort to introduce and promote modern institutions and concepts like industrialisation and democracy is extremely difficult. In Pakistan, we have not been able to start large-scale industrialisation, especially in areas with an extensive tribal base.

This feature of tribalism prevents the rise of genuine leadership which could put the country on the path of development. The large-scale underdevelopment is partly for the reason that there has been no genuine political leadership around as tribalism never allowed it to emerge and thrive.

It is important to note that in different provinces and areas of Pakistan tribal-based traditional authorities have specific names. For instance, among the Punjabis they are called the Chaudhris or Nawabs, among the Pakhtuns Khans and Maliks, among the Sindhis Waderas and among the Baloch Sardars and Wajas.

A key feature of tribalism is institutionalised violence and conflict. Without violence and conflict the very functionality of the tribal society is impossible. The foremost reason is that in such a society there are a few, if any, political institutions and mechanisms to settle disputes, feuds and enmities. The large-scale violence and conflict in Pakistani society have been the result of the valuing of violence by a large number of members of society.

In a tribal society violence and conflict is common. Any effort to introduce and promote modern institutions and concepts like industrialisation and democracy is extremely difficult. In Pakistan, we have not been able to start large-scale industrialisation, especially in areas with an extensive tribal base. More importantly, we could not have strong democratic institutions because elections have been dominated by tribal leadership. Democracy is a culture and not a system. It needs an appropriate social milieu to thrive. In a tribal social structure it is well-nigh impossible for democracy to flourish. From this standpoint, one can understand the failure of democracy in Pakistan.

A narrow interpretation of religion is a norm in every tribal society and Pakistan is no exception. The extremism and terrorism we have witnessed over the last two decades has had much to do with the narrow worldviews of members of a tribal society, especially the myopic interpretation of the religion.

The biggest casualty of tribalism and its collectivist social ethos is the individual and its freedom. God bestows every individual with certain talents, skills and faculties which can only be realised and promoted when he or she is allowed to pursue them.

In a tribal society, an individual is kept subservient to the interests of the family, tribe and society. Resultantly, the individual ends up frustrated, which means that he or she does not get desired outlets for self-expression. The only two ways left are to resort to violence or to migrate to some foreign land. Violence in Pakistan’s society and the high level of brain-drain from Pakistan point to this fact.

A tribal society has to be male-dominant. Women have very few and insignificant roles to play. Resultantly, one half of the population remains unproductive in economic terms.

According to Naila Aman, a lecturer of sociology at the University of Peshawar and a doctoral research scholar, tribalism, "greatly compromises individual freedom as a tribal society is run collectively. A tribal society has what sociologist Emile Durkheim called having mechanical solidarity, which means that kinship bonds are the main determinant of every social action. In such a society one has to conform to group interest and norms to survive. Such a society cannot develop and results in marginalisation of individuals and results in violence and conflict."

In Pakistan, policymakers have seldom analysed the multiple social, economic and political problems by looking at the social structure, which is dominated by tribalism. If meaningful change and development have to start in Pakistan the tribal-dominated social structure has to be transformed otherwise a new Pakistan is not possible notwithstanding the claims of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party.

 

The writer is a political economy and security analyst and a governance and public policy practitioner: He can be reached at [email protected]

The tribal way