Pakistan: The State of the Union

Following an absence of more than ten years, I returned to my ethnic homeland of Pakistan in late 2010. In the several months leading up to my visit and thereafter, I became increasingly interested in Pakistani politics and understanding the roots of its internal crises. Towards these ends, a Professor Noam Chomsky recommended a policy paper put out by Selig Harrison’s Center for International Study, entitled “Pakistan: The State of the Union,” which consists of a comprehensive study of Pakistan and the state of its internal affairs. Harrison is a highly regarded scholar with a distinguished academic career and an expertise in Pakistan spanning more than fifty years. The paper can be downloaded here.

I was quite astonished and disheartened at what I discovered. Pakistan is presently suffering from serious internal maladies that will spell ruin for the young country if they are left unremedied. These ailments go well beyond platitudes about fighting poverty, illiteracy, and religious extremism. I will endeavor to summarize what I regard as Harrison’s most significant findings, but I would strongly encourage interested readers to read the study for themselves. In addition to identifying the major sources of conflict in Pakistan, Harrison provides an organized discussion on what changes must be implemented to ameliorate these problems and enable Pakistan to reach its political and economic potential. I should note that I will not be summarizing Harrion’s commentary on the United State’s military role in exacerbating tensions in Pakistan, which I plan to write about in a forthcoming post.

Harrison first notes that the centralized government in Punjab, by far the wealthiest and most politically powerful province in Pakistan, is presently engaging in a form of ethnic discrimination that bears an uncanny resemblance to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Although Harrison does not draw this direct parallel, the similarities are quite remarkable. The Pakistanis in Balochistan, NWFP, and Sindh (“BPS”) harbor deep resentment towards the Punjabi-dominated government on several accounts, including the exploitation of their natural resources (oil, natural gas, and water), unjust tax appropriations and distributions, “enforced disappearances” and other human rights abuses against non-Punjabi political activists, and the presence of large Punjabi Army personnel in BPS to suppress political dissent (i.e. a garden-variety military occupation). Despite the fact that schools, hospitals, and infrastructure in BPS are in dilapidated condition, the Punjab province is the primary beneficiary of tax revenues while BPS receives grossly inadequate royalties for its gas and oil production. For this reason Punjab boasts much higher literacy rates, as well as lower infant mortality rates, than BPS. It has also resulted in a marked inequity in wealth distribution and quality of life for millions of Pakistanis. The level of corruption and racial prejudice is simply astonishing.

Second, and I don’t say this on account of any political leanings, but it’s clear that former President Pervez Musharraf played a particularly insidious role in suppressing BPS dissent. Most of us are aware that Musharraf suspended the Constitution and discharged Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March 2007. But the motivations behind these anti-democratic measures are less known. First, it happens that Chaudhry was committed to investigating thousands of complaints filed by private Balochi families on behalf of their loved ones who “disappeared” without even the pretense of due process (many human rights groups also reported on this systemic abuse). These enforced disappearances were carried out by the Punjabi Army on the order of Musharraf who sought to suppress Balochi insurgents that demanded an implementation of the 1973 Constitution and an end to the second-class treatment they have endured since Pakistan’s creation. Moreover, Harrison notes that near the end of Musharraf’s reign, Chaudhry issued a lengthy judicial opinion stating that the expedited privatization of a government steel mill, done under the auspices of Musharraf, did not comport with the onerous conversion requirements under Pakistani corporate law. The hurried process, done in the “dead of the night,” pointed to the fact that Musharraf had a stake in the dissolution of the mill and was positioned to receive massive kickbacks. Indeed, the heads of Pakistan’s central government have a long history of accepting kickbacks from private industries on a scale that is quite breathtaking. With a net worth of between 1.5 and 2 billion US dollars, reigning president and former husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, accumulated his entire fortune through illicit kickbacks, making him one of the wealthiest men in Pakistan. In short, Musharraf did not respond kindly to the Chief Justice’s commitment to the rule of law.

I made reference to the 1973 Constitution. Harrison notes that much like Iraq and other post-colonial countries, the British drew the post-partition borders of Pakistan in a manner that did not take ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian religious differences into account. Thus an amalgamation of four distinct ethics groups–the Balochis, Sindis, Pathans, and Punjabis–each with a unique cultural heritage and a history marked by mutual enmity, violence, and mistrust, were forced to live within one nation-state. Successive Pakistani governments recognized this reality; the creation of four separate provinces within one federation was a manifestation of this recognition. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan envisaged a united federation that would permit each province to maintain a high degree of independence and autonomy. However, the Punjabi government never implemented the 1973 Constitution, preferring a de facto apartheid arrangement not unlike what exists in present-day Palestine. Indeed, Zia Al-Haqq was one of the fiercest opponents of implementing this constitutional provision and harbored a particularly grotesque attitude towards the Balochis. However, the fact is that every Pakistani government, from the Pakistan People’s Party to Zia Al-Haqq and the Pakistan Army (perhaps the most corrupt entity of all) has engaged in harsh suppression of BPS minorities, despite outward declarations to the contrary, including a recent statement by Zardari expressing the need to implement the 1973 provisions. Nothing has been done, of course.

Harrison maintains that the insurgents in BPS are often secular and do not invoke the language of Islamist militants to define their struggle. That is not to say they are not committed Muslims, but rather to highlight the fact that their grievances are fundamentally political, not ideological, in nature. That is a blessing in my mind. Assuming rational compromises are made between the centralized government and BPS, it suggests that Pakistan can enter into a state of healing and rehabilitation. Several weeks ago I read in The Dawn and Daily Times newspapers that Balochi insurgents blew up a natural gas pipeline in an effort to dramatize their grievances to the central government (civilians were not targeted). While these methods should obviously not be condoned, they speak to the justified anger that minorities in BPS harbor towards the Punjabi-dominated government. Punjab has sought to privatize oil and natural gas exploration for the ostensible purpose of facilitating foreign investment in Pakistan. However, the profits from these foreign investments are intended to go the Punjab province and line the pockets of government bureaucrats, rather than the minorities who are their rightful recipients. Moreover, the shortage of gas and energy supplies in Balochistan and NWFP have forced many Pakistanis to suffer in extremely cold temperatures this winter.

In short, it would not be possible for me to do justice to Harrison’s findings in a solitary post, but I would strongly encourage readers to research these issues further. Today’s discussions on Pakistan are largely centered on educational reform, the need to fight religious extremism, and the importance of building civic institutions that will enable Pakistan to function as a just and transparent nation. No doubt each of these reforms are of paramount importance, but what is conspicuously absent from the conversation is Pakistan’s own complicity in impeding such reform through its suppression and exploitation of millions of Pakistani ethnic minorities. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of issue that must to be brought to the fore of public discussion, in a way that is not politically divisive but rather uniting. Young Pakistanis, whose political loyalties are presumably not as deeply entrenched as previous generations, can play a vital role in bringing awareness to these injustices. My strong belief is that the roots of Pakistan’s miseries spring from these inhumane and racially discriminatory polices.

I certainly do not support any kind of secessionist agenda, and very much hope to see Pakistan remain forever united, but a nation that fails to uphold the rights of its minorities and share its wealth in a way that is honest, fair, and transparent cannot hope to achieve a semblance of unity. It seems that confronting these realities will require Pakistanis to engage in deep soul-searching and introspection, and make a conscious effort to not allow political loyalties to impair their sense of justice and fairness. Pakistan is barely a half-century old, still very much in an embryonic stage of development, and the choices it makes now will likely define whether it emerges as a “viable state actor” or a “failed state.”

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