Pakistan Fissures II: Ethnic Cleavages

In the Washington Post yesterday Selig Harrison, wrote an op-ed arguing that the Punjabi-Pashtun ethnic conflict underpins the rise of the Taliban. The Punjab is Pakistan’s most powerful province. Home to about half of the country’s population, the Punjab dominates Pakistan politically and is the primary source of manpower for the army. Harrison argues that Pakistan’s Pashtuns are cut off from Afghanistan’s Pashtuns and marginalized. Pashtuns are the largest single ethnicity in Afghanistan, and combined with Pakistan’s Pashtun population would dominate that country. In addition to fostering dissatisfaction among the Pashtuns, the situation creates an incentive for Pakistan to keep Afghanistan weak and off-balance – so that it is less able to foment trouble among Pakistan’s Pashtun population.

The well-informed Pakistan Policy blog takes issue with several of Harrison’s assertions and criticizes Harrisons policy prescription of incorporating the tribal FATA with the “settled” NWFP as a map re-drawing “fetish” of “old white men.”

Pashtun vs. Pashtun
The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Pashtuns have, to a great extent, allied with the Punjabis and serve in Pakistan’s armies in substantial numbers – but, at the same time, Pashtun nationalism has absolutely been a concern for Pakistani elites. The Taliban’s rise could also be understood as settled Pashtuns vs. tribal Pashtuns. This is the oasis people vs. desert people paradigm set forth by the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun over 600 years ago (this plays into the issue of feudalism raised in my previous post. Many of the settled Pashtuns of the NWFP look towards Islamabad and ally with the Punjabis, while some of the tribes of the FATA seek closer bonds with the Pashtuns on the other side of the Durand Line.

One of Many Ethnic Conflicts
While Pashtun nationalism is a potentially serious challenge to the integrity of the Pakistani state, unfortunately, it is only one of a myriad of ethnic conflicts that shape Pakistani politics.

Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest and poorest province has been in a state of on and off again insurrection, virtually since the state was founded. Baluchistan’s resources are important to Pakistan’s staggering economy and the new Chinese-built port in Gwadar has the potential to serve as a transit point serving central Asia and the Persian Gulf area. Needless to say, the Baluchis have not benefited from these projects (the Pakistani government blames the Baluchi leaders – again, see the post on feudalism in Pakistan). This conflict distracts the Pakistani military from other missions and fosters suspicions (not entirely unfounded) that the Baluchis are receiving aid from foreign powers – particularly India.

In a sense the Pashtun-Punjabi and Baluchi-Punjabi conflicts are dwarfed by the Sindhi-Punjabi conflict. The Sindh is Pakistan’s second largest province in population. Most importantly, the great city of the Sindh, the sprawling megalopolis of Karachi, is Pakistan’s primary port. Both the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Bhutto clan are Sindhi. However moves by the Pakistani government, have led the Sindhis to feel slighted by the state. A substantial amount of Sindhi land has been granted to retired army officers (primarily Punjabis) and the capital was moved from Karachi to the newly constructed city of Islamabad. At Benazir Bhutto’s funeral, crowds cried, “We don’t want Pakistan!”

Punjabi vs. everyone is not the complete extent of the ethnic divides within Pakistan. Pashtun-Baluchi relationships have not always been ideal, nor have Sindhis always had amicable relations with the Pashtuns or Baluchis. Mohajirs (descendents of Muslims who fled India when the partition occurred) dominate the city of Karachi and have fought with the Sindhis in the past and are now engaged in clashes with Pashtun immigrants to Karachi. (The multi-faceted violence that regularly roils Karachi will receive its own post.)

Implications: Hanging Together or…
None of these latent, or not so latent, conflicts mean that Pakistan is about to fall apart. First, the Pakistani army remains, by far, the dominant force in the country – none of the provinces have the capacity to defy it indefinitely. Also, it is not clear that any of the provinces would be terribly successful outside of Pakistan. Sindh would be dependent on Punjab for water and the Punjab would be dependent on the Sindh for an outlet to the sea. A Pashtunistan would be landlocked and an independent Baluchistan would be desperately poor.

Every country fears separatist movements, but for Pakistan ethnic separatism strikes at the very core of the state – which views itself as home to India’s Muslims. Worse, Pakistan has already suffered a split, when Bangladesh (originally East Pakistan) became independent after a Pakistani-Indian war in 1971. Fear of another runs very deep in Pakistani security services. That Bangladesh’s independence came due to foreign interference has fueled paranoia among Pakistan’s leadership about foreign conspiracies to dismember the state.

In this context, U.S. drone strikes are matches thrown onto gasoline.

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5 Responses

  1. Founder of the Nation Mohammed Ali Jinnah was born in karachi but was a gujrati and his family was from bombay(Mumbai)although Sindh was part of Bombay presidency during the british rule but it had different ethnic groups(gujratis,sindhis,katchis marathis etc ).After the british rule the Bombay presidency was dismantled new states were formed,some areas were merged with other states.

    Interestingly,karachi presently the capital of sindh previously capital of pakistan never had a overwhelming ethnic sindhi population.It had Gujrati hindu population,goanese christian population,baloch population of lyari,parsi population(which had iranian roots but spoke and still speaks gujrati) and kutchi/gujrati and sindhi muslim population.

    So the port city always had diversity of cultures but i not like the present scenario where ethnicity is just used for gaining political mileage.

  2. Thank you for your perceptive comment – and for correcting my mistakes.

    I think on the big picture issue, the danger ethnic divides present to a healthy and stable Pakistan, we have similar feelings.

    I get the impression that the Sindh was historically a region with a tradition of accommodating a variety of ethnic identities. Those admirable attitudes in effect became a disadvantage in a Pakistan marked by ethnic competition.

    This is too bad.

  3. I agree and thats the case. unfortunately in karachi the two political parties (i.e ANP and MQM)are “secular” and “moderate” but always indulged in ethnic politics armed gangs are affiliated with both the parties.

    Majority of pakistanis hoped that after winning the 2008 election the Pakistan People’s Party the only national party which has its political base in all the four provinces and has a secular manifesto will deliver to the people.But party so far has not delivered what was expected of it.

    Sadly,there is no National leader after benzair bhutto in pakistan who can be a unifying force.people have hopes with nawaz sharif but his party has little presence outside punjab.

    In my previous post i made a mistake by writing marathi as an ethnic group of sindh it is not accurate.marathis were an ethnic group of the bombay presidency and not sindh.

  4. Thanks for continuing the thread. Sorry not to post a reply until now (my day job gets in the way of my blogging).

    The PPP has been a disappointment and while Zardari has not exactly been a nationally unifying figure, it doesn’t seem as though Sharif would be much better.

    From what I’ve read about democracy building, strong political parties are essential. But as I understand it the PPP and the PML-N are both really built around leading personalities and families. Tough to get past that.

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