Tracing the Genesis of Regional Problems in Pakistan

 By Tisyaketu Sirkar
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The Pakistani nation should not be regarded as a homogeneous national entity devoid of regional complexities. It is abound with diverse regional and provincial interests undergirding the Pakistani nation, and in fact trying to debunk its national identity. In this paper, these regional complexities will be underlined, specifically, the trajectory of these movements pre-independence to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. It is important to remember in this case that Pakistan’s varying regional identities are not being conflated with the nation’s religious communities. The latter constitutes a completely different issue that is not the focus of this essay. The paper’s argument will be broken into two sections. The aim is to provide an understanding of the complex nature of Pakistan’s nationhood that continues to affect its political structures and internal social stability.

The Provinces and Pakistani Independence

To understand the ethnic and regional cleavages of the Pakistani nation, a thorough examination of the factors behind the nation’s formation must be undertaken. Here, the statements of Mohammed Ali Jinnah will primarily be considered, as he was the foremost articulator of a Pakistani nation[i]. By looking at his statements, we can understand that the demand for Pakistan comprised of granting India’s Muslims a distinct political space away from India. By 1947, this political space would be in the form of a sovereign nation that was completely separated from the former Indian union[ii]. The basis for this nation, or Pakistan, was that Muslims constituted a separate political community from the Hindu majority, with a unique set of social and political rights[iii]. However, such an identity was under the imminent threat of being subsumed under majoritarian Hindu sentiment, which threatened to control the Indian union after the departure of the British colonial authorities.

 It is in the very demand for a Pakistani nation that provincial issues facing it first emerged. One of the biggest obstacles confronting Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan was strong provincial political groups that did not accept his vision[iv]. In pre-independence India the largest Muslim majority provinces were in undivided Bengal and Punjab. Alongside them stood the smaller regions of Sindh and the North West Frontier Province[v]. A look at the provincial assembly results in these areas during 1937, a mere 10 years before the creation of Pakistan, is instructive. Jinnah’s party – the All India Muslim League (AIML) performed extremely poorly in the Muslim majority provinces[vi]. Both in Punjab and in Bengal, strong regional parties such as the Unionist Party were voted into power[vii]. The situation was exacerbated in the coming years, with the rise of figures such as Allah Baksh Soomro in Sindh and Abdul Ghaffar Khan in North West Frontier Province (NWFP)[viii]. Both these leaders were staunchly opposed to the Muslim League’s vision of a separate Muslim polity, asserting the need to maintain a united political front with the Hindu and Congress elements in their respective states[ix]. These regional interests had a strong economic underpinning as well where cooperation with the local non-Muslim population and unhindered access to the broader Indian subcontinent was crucial for the economic survival of the provinces[x]. Such political realities were extremely troubling for the demand for Pakistan, indicating that Muslims were divided on the need for a separate Muslim polity, hence depriving the call for Pakistan of a popular and a geographical basis.

Eventually, by 1947, Jinnah and the AIML were able to turn around the situation by allying with regional elements when necessary or bolstering its own political base to represent a stronger face in elections[xi]. However, it must be noted here that regional political groups supported Jinnah and the Muslim League to prevent a Congress dominated political centre[xii]. For this, a united front was required, which could only be achieved under the aegis of the Muslim League – the only party that maintained a strong national presence. These regional groups were not vested in the idea of Pakistan – to them it was an alliance of convenience[xiii]. This fact was reflected in the Lahore Resolution where the local parties were promised uncompromising regional autonomy in the future Pakistani nation[xiv]. Such a decision was also predicated on the poor organisational structure of the Muslim League that had barely any support amongst the local groups in Muslim majority states, necessitating their reliance on established regional political units[xv].

Thus, the very creation of the Pakistani nation was fraught with dissent from regional political parties that aimed to perpetuate their control over their respective states. Their eventual acceptance of the demand for Pakistan was itself a pragmatic decision premised on the view that local authorities would retain their predominance over their regions post independence. The strong provincial undercurrent in the formation of Pakistan would later appear in the deliberations on the contours of its nationhood which will be discussed in the following section.

Post-Independence – the Problem Persists

The provincial tensions underscoring the Pakistani nation were not buried with its independence but exerted a pervasive influence on Pakistani politics.  The crux of the problem over here lay in the interests of Pakistan’s ruling elite who sought to consolidate the idea of the nation through the use of Islamic rhetoric[xvi]. This move was designed precisely to counter the extensive influence exerted by the regions during the time of independence. The idea of Islam would assume the place of a national ideology, binding together its various constituent elements into the framework of nationhood. The first indications of such a nationalizing project could be found in the bid to make Urdu the official language of the Pakistani state[xvii]. By not according the regional languages this position, the nation’s political leaders were clearly seeking to establish a national vision for Pakistan by establishing a new linguistic identity[xviii]. Concomitantly, a strong centralized state could be established that would drive Pakistani state, albeit at the behest of the regional politicians, whose political power would diminish. Through this policy, a strong ‘Pakistani’ nation could be established, where the nationalistic identity of the nation stood above regional affiliations.

The bid to establish a strong central authority at the helm of the Pakistani state was staunchly opposed by the regional constituents of the nation that viewed this move as an assault against their regional identities[xix]. Such a project went against the very tenets of the Lahore Resolution on which Pakistan was based, promising the regions the status of sovereign and independent status vis-à-vis the centre[xx]. It is also important to remember the actors responsible for demanding a centralized Pakistani polity, were from the region of Punjab combined with the Muhajir communities, who had migrated to Pakistan from India[xxi]. Given the background of the groups advocating for a centralized state, regional political units also perceived this demand as an attempt by the Punjabis and Muhajir communities to dominate the Pakistani state at the behest of local political interests[xxii].

The deliberations over the Pakistani constitution were illustrative of this tension, as its members could not agree upon a structure for the nation. Regional groups headed by the Bengalis favoured maximum possible autonomy, whilst Muslim League politicians from the West advocated a stronger central authority at the cost of the regions[xxiii]. This deadlock would have a potent effect on the Pakistani nation, with the suspension of the constituent assembly in 1954, and the creation of a new constitution in 1956, albeit which barely altered colonial constitutional framework of 1935[xxiv]. The inability to establish an effective constitution would finally culminate in the suspension of democracy in Pakistan, in favour of military rule by General Ayub Khan. This step was one of the first factors that led to the disintegration of the Pakistani nation as conceptualised in 1947. The suspension of the democracy combined with the stifling of the regional political unit catalysed the Bengali secessionist movement, resulting in the creation of an independent Bangladesh. Concurrently, the suspension of the constitution by the Army was also accompanied by the One Unit Scheme that grouped the various provinces in West Pakistan into a single political entity to counter the political power of the Bengalis, who were technically the majority in the Pakistani state[xxv]. This scheme also extended the alienation with the Pakistani state to the regions of Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP, who resented such a decision which was unilaterally imposed upon them by political elites primarily drawn from the Punjabi and Muhajir population[xxvi].

Conclusion

Thus, in 1971, the inability to reconcile the regional interests with the national idea of Pakistan led to the secession of East Pakistan. Simultaneously these measures provided a voice to strident independence movements in West Pakistan, led by the demand for an independent Sindhi nation termed as a ‘Sindhudesh’ by its leading proponent G.M. Syed[xxvii]. Such problems were a clear reflection of the pre-independence predicament of Pakistan that received only lukewarm acceptance of the regions that were to be assimilated into the Pakistani nation. It is unlikely that the problem of region vis-à-vis the Pakistani polity is about to end any time soon as the secessionist movements stemming from 1971 continue to plague Pakistan in present times. The Pakistani nation faces active secessionist movements in Baluchistan and Sindh, with the former assuming the form of a violent insurgency. And like the main political leaders of post-independence Pakistan, its present leaders continue their hostile stance towards movements that champion regional interests. At the time of writing this article, the advocates of the Sindhudesh movement have been apparently disappearing under mysterious circumstances, forcing most of its advocates to go underground[xxviii]. While the state has denied any involvement, such claims cannot be regarded with much seriousness[xxix]. If any attempt is made to understand the Pakistani polity, it must be made keeping in mind the complex regional dynamics that plague it.

References

[i] Stephen P. Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, Delhi:Oxford University Press, 2004, p.28.

[ii] Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan: A Comparitive and Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.14.

[iii] Stephen P. Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, Delhi:Oxford University Press, 2004, p.28.

[iv] Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, London: Hurst and Company, 2013, pp.45-46

[v] Balochistan during this period of time did not have a provincial assembly, as it was a princely state.

[vi] Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, London: Hurst and Company, 2013, p.101.

[vii] Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, London: Hurst and Company, 2013, pp.45-46

[viii] Ali Usman Qasmi ed., Muslims against the Muslim League, pp.244-246 and pp. 304-306.

[ix] Ali Usman Qasmi ed., Muslims against the Muslim League, pp.237-239 and pp.293-294.

[x] Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan: A Comparitive and Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 9- 12.

[xi] Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, London:Harvard University Press, 2014, pp.34-35.

[xii] Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan: A Comparitive and Historical Perspective, p.67

[xiii] Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, London:Harvard University Press, 2014, p.34-36.

[xiv] Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan: A Comparitive and Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.15.

[xv] Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan: A Comparitive and Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.14.

[xvi] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.87

[xvii] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 47-50.

[xviii] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pp.47-50.

[xix] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.87

[xx] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.13.

[xxi] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.87

[xxii] Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, London:Harvard University Press, 2014, p.101.

[xxiii] G.W. Choudhury, ‘The Constitution of Pakistan’, Pacific Affairs, Vol.29, No.3, 1956, pp.247-248.

[xxiv] Richard Wheeler, ‘Pakistan: New Constitution, Old Issues’, Asian Survey, Vol.3, No.2, 1962, p.107.

[xxv] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.91.

[xxvi] Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.91.

[xxvii] Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, London:Harvard University Press, 2014, p.149-150.

[xxviii] Dawn Report, ‘Protest against ‘enforced disappearances’ in Sindh intensifies’, Dawn, May 25, 2018,   https://www.dawn.com/news/1409851