A history of conflict

February 6, 2022

A comprehensive work on political conflict, nature of the state and political processes in Pakistan

A history of conflict

Dr Mohammad Waseem is probably the best known political scientist from Pakistan in academic circles. His books Politics and the State in Pakistan (1994) and Democratization in Pakistan: a Study of the 2002 Election (2006), numerous chapters and articles on the politics of Pakistan are highly regarded by scholars. The book under review, however, is his magnum opus, his most ambitious and magisterial work on what lies at the heart of politics, namely conflict.

If one looks at the list of chapters, there are only seven excluding the introduction and the conclusion, but if one examines what each chapter comprises, one is surprised at the comprehensiveness of the thematic arrangement of issues: the history of conflict, the master narrative of the state, the friction between two power centres, the nature of democracy (establishmentarian), constitutional dynamics, the mass public and the last one, intriguingly labelled The Outsider.

These are followed by the conclusion which sums up how the author has contributed to the debates about the nature of the political processes in Pakistan and an impressive section on notes and references, a glossary and an index.

Since this is probably the most exhaustive study of political dynamics of Pakistan to date it would not be possible for me to refer to all its themes even summarily. However, I will try to bring out the major themes with emphasis on the author’s original theoretical insights and theories.

Waseem, in this book, deals with political conflict with reference to four major themes: conflict within (institutional design, master narrative, two power centres, clash of institutions); state and ethnicity (federalism, provincial autonomy, ethnicity, clash of cultures); subaltern (non-conflict) (patronage, justice, the status quo, the face of the state in a district and the subaltern in action); state and religion (the Two-Nation theory, Islamisation of laws, minoritisation of communities, modernism versus traditionalism etc.). Let us take the author’s analysis of some of the major aspects of these conflicts.

About the first kind of conflict the author contends that the state in postcolonial societies, such as Pakistan, remains a “condensate of official policies focusing on state-building” (Page 8). This implies that it is the institutional design, the way the system functions, which causes conflict not that certain forces taken in isolation precipitate it. The letter of the law, the constitution for instance, provides for catering for all citizens alike using the parlance of human rights. The state managers, on the other hand, practice the opposite at times since their own class interests and narratives treat the letter of the law as mere embellishment.

This brings me to his most original insight into state management, the theory of the two power centres. Waseem argues that these two centres are the state elite and the political elite. The former comprises the military, bureaucracy, media and other educated members of the middle class while the latter are the political contenders, party cadres, workers who come from the world of actual transactions of patronage and are sensitive to local demands which, from the point of view of the state elite, are inimical to the modernisation-driven demands of ‘national interest’. While the word establishment is common currency in Pakistan for the military, intelligence agencies and perhaps some members of the senior bureaucracy and judiciary, the author’s concept of the state elite includes the whole of the middle class in which he, along with some Indian scholars, deviate from the traditional ways of perceiving political conflict. His basic argument is that the middle class, from which the more powerful sections of the state elite come, “is ideologically orientated to the two domains of religion and nationalism” and “upholds a dichotomous worldview based on conflict between Islam and the West” (Page 151). Paradoxically, while it is believed that this middle class is democratic, Waseem points out its fear of the masses. It does not understand why people respond to politicians whereas they are the only route to “sneak through the gates of the remote, impersonal, English-based bureaucratic ruling mechanism” which control such living issues as jobs, roads for access to villages, countering the high-handedness of the police and theft of property as well as crimes such as murder and abduction of women (Page 156).

The state managed by this elite was based on a continuation of the Partition rhetoric so that political legitimacy was sought in religion in Pakistan; in India it was sought in language. Secondly, there was such a high quantum of migration from India that about 20 percent of the population of Pakistan consisted of migrants. Moreover, those of them who were from the UP and other Urdu-speaking areas were also better educated and, therefore, more visibly represented in the bureaucracy and other middle class professions. The migrants from East Punjab had an “exclusionary framework of political imagination” which became the major lens of perception of events in Pakistani Punjab whose elite, of course, dominated both the civil service and the armed forces (Page 55). The Urdu-speaking migrants, emphasising their sufferings during the Partition violence, also stressed an ideological nationalism drawing on the exclusionary logic of the Two-Nation theory (that Muslims and Hindus cannot coexist in the same political entity without the former being dominated and denied their rights by the latter), Islam as a unifying symbol of boundary-marking and imagining the nation-state. The nature of the migrant state was such that, in the early years, elections which would potentially open the doors to the sons of the soil (especially from the peripheries such as Bengal and Sindh), were a source of anxiety for it. This understanding of the history of the “seventy years of Partition’ (Chapter 1) helps the reader understand the genesis of the political conflict which is the burden of the other chapters.

The state elite, insecure as it was by the challenge of ethnicity in the new state and keen to justify its separation from India, constructed a master narrative (Chapter 2) which was based on demonising India and the Hindu other, creating paranoia and living in a state of crisis. All of these make people pick up odd pieces of information to create a conspiracy theory which explains international relations through conspiracies of the ‘Other’ (India, Israel, the Soviet Union initially but later the USA and the West in general). This makes Pakistan “a nation in denial”.

Part of the narrative is the construction of the Indus civilisation as different from the Gengetic one so that Pakistan gets a history of four thousand years. At the other end of the right-wing imagination of territory, the pre-Islamic past does not exist; Pakistan is as old as its conquest by Muslims. It is in this conflict of symbols and imaginaries that language (Urdu versus the indigenous languages), modernists versus traditionalists and, most interesting of all, the “return of the native” dynamics are based. The last mentioned belongs to the postcolonial ways of thought in which the West is the ‘other’ and one has to return to one’s pre-colonial ‘authentic’ roots.

However, while Clym Yeobright in Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, finds his roots in Egdon Heath, writers like Akbar S Ahmed, Saba Mahmood and Humeria Iqtidar take refuge in the glorification of a largely mythical ‘native’ which they present as being Islamic and, therefore, authentic. Ahmed asserts that there is something like Islamic anthropology which barred outsiders from understanding Muslim societies, Saba Mahmood glorifies what she calls the “inner self of women cultivating piety” in Egypt thus ignoring the elements of violence against women in religious political practices. Humeria Iqtidar argues the Jamaet-i-Islami and the Jamat ud Dawa (Ju D) as potentially secularising on the assumption that secularists had failed in Pakistan. Waseem has demolished the reasoning of these postmodernist thinkers with such acumen that it is impossible to disagree with him.

While there is much the reader will find interesting, the paucity of space does not allow me to offer any details. It is necessary, however, to point out that the chapters on the mass public and constitutional dynamics are very important. The mass public emerged under colonial rule and has transited to civil society by and by. However, it pursues middle class careers and this is where education and the media come in. Both spread hate messages for the ‘other’ and, apart from a few progressive intellectuals, this public also supports the narrative of the managerial elites. There is, however, an insider-outsider dichotomy which plays into conflict and is worth attention. The outsiders are ethnic groups (Baloch, Sindhis, Pashtuns especially from movements like the PDM) and sectarian or religious minorities (Christians, Hindus among non-Muslims, Shias among Muslims and those who are classified as non-Muslims such as Ahmadis, or heretics such as the Zikris etc). While they have been relegated by the narrative as well as the actual dynamics of governance to the peripheries, to avoid violent schism the state reduces their potential for violence by catering to some demands of some outsiders. On the other hand, the weaker outsiders, such as religious minorities, are not accommodated since the society itself will not support them anyway.

There are many other strands one could pick up for mention. However, I will sum up by saying that this is the most authoritative and comprehensive work on political conflict, the nature of the state and political institutions and processes in Pakistan I have ever read. The archives the author draws upon are truly impressive. Even obscure works, long forgotten writings, forgotten reports and archival sources have been read and analysed. It is, indeed, a lifetime’s work that will remain an essential scholarly source for many years to come. I commend both the author for contributing so ably to scholarship on Pakistan and the Hurst press for making the book so presentable.

Political Conflict in Pakistan

Author: Mohammad Waseem

Publisher: Hurst & Company, 2021

Pages: 570

The reviewer is an   occasional contributor.

A history of conflict