Notes Towards a People’s History of Pakistan

May 2013

Issue IV

Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series

Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series

As Pakistan nears a historic election – and hopefully, the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another – election fever has understandably gripped the country. Excitement over the historic nature of this election is tempered by election violence and the disturbing sight of armed and masked figures at election rallies.  That, coupled with the PTI’s recent unprecedented emergence as a serious contender for power and the return of the prodigal general and his summary house arrest has generated a slew of commentary about the nature and viability of democracy in Pakistan—a troublingly neo-Orientalist discussion.

Such arguments about whether Pakistan is ready for democracy or not have been prevalent for decades. The latest example is a British Council survey that claimed to find that Pakistani youth were disenchanted with democracy is a case in point.

Pseudo-objective explanations—which aren’t really explanations at all—gesture towards Pakistan’s long history of military dictatorships. The explanation, offered up with regularity by cynical intellectuals (usually, in my experience, members of the Punjabi urban petty bourgeois) goes something like this: The area comprising Pakistan has a long history of serial conquest by outsiders, which has made its denizens more compliant in their attitude towards power. They are willing to withstand dictatorship and forego democracy.

This thin explanation relies on the assumption that this region has no history of resistance—a patently false claim. Even if we limit ourselves to the Punjab alone—the center of military power—we don’t have to work too hard to unearth a rich history of resistance, from the famous warrior Dullah Bhatti who led a revolt against the Mughal emperor Akbar, the sufi poet Bulleh Shah who never hesitated in speaking truth to power, the young anti-imperialist hero and Marxist revolutionary Bhagat Singh to the Anjuman Mazarin-i Punjab (AMP) of today who have stood up to no less a force than the Pakistani military.

***

This idea that the Pakistani people have somehow brought authoritarianism upon themselves (which the middle classes as democratic warriors are now beating back), persists in the face of all evidence to the contrary: the many movements of resistance and self-determination that have emerged in this country’s short history, the combined and well-documented efforts of the manipulations of the ruling establishment, the role of the US in squashing many of these movements, and the immense resilience of the ordinary people of Pakistan in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds.

That these stories of resistance and self-determination are not part of our national imaginary is the direct result of concerted efforts to relegate (proto)socialist and Marxist visions of state and society to the margins of our political imagination. In fact, a people’s history of democracy in Pakistan would require understanding the singular role played by prominent members of the liberal intelligentsia in obstructing and undermining democratic politics from the very beginning of the country’s history.

Take the example of M.D. Taseer, father of the late Salman Taseer.  A senior civil servant and influential liberal intellectual and man of letters, M.D. Taseer was a force to be reckoned with in the post-independence period.  An early member of the socialist and anti-imperialist Progressive Writers Association, he broke with it after it called out several Pakistani Urdu writers for their reactionary, pro-state and anti-people politics.  Members of the PWA were also vocal critics of the foreign and domestic policies of the increasingly authoritarian ruling party, the Muslim League. Taseer, along with Muhammad Hassan Askari, another important liberal intellectual and literary figure of this period, launched a concerted attack on the Progressive Writers, questioning their loyalty to the state (and even charging them with sedition) and insisting that the state take action against them.  It was in no small part due to their efforts that the state felt comfortable harassing and jailing members of the PWA and finally banning it in 1954, just in time to sign the first Cold War agreement with the United States.

In the 1960s, established liberal intellectuals such as A.K. Brohi and retired Supreme Court justice S. A. Rahman similarly did their bit to undermine democratic politics.  This time around their task was more imperative and also more difficult given the strength of the Leftist mass movement against Ayub Khan.  This movement had successfully brought Marxism and socialism – anathema to the ruling establishment – into the political mainstream.  However, this did not stop the liberal intellectuals from doing their duty in terms of protecting the interests of the propertied classes. This they did by joining forces with the Jama’at-e-Islami to argue, in every forum and form at their disposal, that socialism and Islam were ‘incompatible’ and therefore socialism would never be acceptable to ‘ordinary Pakistanis’.  Strangely, ‘ordinary Pakistanis’ clearly seemed to think otherwise.  Unfortunately for them and for us, the only party in West Pakistan that had the capacity to represent their interests at the time turned out to be the People’s Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.  This may be news to those who have grown up listening to liberal pundits who fold the mass uprisings of the 1960s into the story of the PPP and remember Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as a paragon of social democratic virtue rather than the anti-Left, anti-Bengali demagogue that he was.

Today, it does not take much for the breathtaking animus towards ordinary Pakistanis, which lurks so close to the surface among the elite and middle classes, to show itself.  Discussions about the difficulties of democratic transition in Pakistan often turn from a focus on rapacious political elites to the ‘illiterate masses,’ who are either coerced or manipulated into supporting a specific political party, thereby, by implication, retarding the democratic process.  That these illiterate poor people might actually have a rational understanding of their interests and might be making rational choices within the constraints of a formal political system, which is not invested in them, is never a possibility.  That they might have agency of the sort that can take on the status quo in ways that the elite dare not, especially given the vested interests of the latter, is even more beyond the pale for the urban middle class democrat.

Instead, liberals indulge in either patronizing romanticization or an allegedly clear-eyed pragmatism, both of which end up dismissing these movements as peripheral to the work of ‘real’ political players.  These reactions are the product of an elite political imagination, which sees the vast majority of Pakistan’s poor and disenfranchised—that is, when it chooses to see them at all—as little more than subject populations to be saved or invoked in populist rhetoric.

***

If we are interested in genuine (small-d) democracy, then we need to move beyond an understanding of it as simply a system based on regular elections. We need to think about what is supposedly at stake in our investment in democracy as a political system. What might it mean to look at democracy—a system of political representation based on election via universal adult franchise—not as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end. That end would be the creation of a political system capable of representing and responding to the interests of its most vulnerable citizens who also constitute the vast majority of its population. This, of course, is not possible under the existing social, political and economic structure of our society.  For true democracy to take root in society, major structural changes have to happen—a meaningful land reform being perhaps the most basic prerequisite.

This also means that we need to switch from thinking about something called democracy to thinking of democratization as a process.  If we look at democratization in this light—as an ongoing effort to open up political space and address the interests and needs of the economically and politically disenfranchised—then we start to look at Pakistani history differently as well.

Important as the movements against military dictatorships have been, they must not, and cannot, be seen as the only movements for democratization in Pakistan. In fact, even these anti-military/pro-democracy movements need to be distinguished from each other in terms of their class basis. The movement against Ayub Khan, for example, was qualitatively different from the one against Musharraf, given that the foundation of the former was a left-wing mass movement of the working classes and peasantry while the base of the latter was the urban professional middle class.

Democratization, then, must be understood properly as the process that gets us beyond formal democracy to a substantive democracy, a goal which cannot be reached without dismantling the status quo. This status quo is not simply the military establishment or the deep state (although no democratic gains can be made without decisively undermining its stranglehold). It is the class structure which keeps the majority of our people in literal and metaphoric bondage to a deeply exploitative and oppressive economic and social system. The current democratic transition does not address this issue, unless what we are implying is that we trust the political elite and the middle classes to represent the interests of the vast majority of the population relegated to the status of subaltern subjects.

Thankfully, ordinary Pakistanis have seldom trusted their fate to the elite and middle classes. It is for this reason that we need to remind ourselves of the real movements for democratization that have defined our history as a postcolonial nation-state and learn to see those contemporary ones that have the potential to push our polity and society towards true and robust democracy.

The Anjuman Mazareen-e-Punjab (AMP) is a million-strong movement of landless peasants in Okara district is one such movement. Formed in 2000 to resist the military’s attempts to evict them from the so-called ‘military farms’ they had lived and worked on for generations, the movement has successfully held the military at bay and continue to agitate for title to their land.  As if this were not amazing enough, it is also a movement comprised of Muslim and Christian tenants and one in which women have played an important role from the very beginning.  It has survived more than a decade of violent harassment by the military, which has included false FIRs for murder, attempts to split it along confessional lines, and to destroy it by throwing money at select individuals.

We can take heart in the fact that even if the importance of people’s movements is supposedly lost on liberal intellectuals and urban middle class democrats, this is not true of the powers that be. No one has understood the serious challenge that the emergence of movements such as the working class and peasant movement of the 1960s, the peasant uprising at Hashtnagar, and now the AMP pose to the establishment’s claim to absolute power. It is not for nothing that it has tried its best to squash these movements and erase them from our history. It is to movements such as these that we must turn for an answer to our problems as a society.

Saadia Toor is the author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. She is a professor at the City University of New York. 

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5 Responses to Notes Towards a People’s History of Pakistan

  1. AA on May 2013 at 7:32 AM

    Can you please expand and give me sources for this: “This may be news to those who have grown up listening to liberal pundits who fold the mass uprisings of the 1960s into the story of the PPP and remember Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as a paragon of social democratic virtue rather than the anti-Left, anti-Bengali demagogue that he was.”

  2. Salman on May 2013 at 10:55 AM

    A fine piece of diasporic scholarship of the benevolent neocolonial kind.

  3. Husain Arif on May 2013 at 12:44 PM

    Too theoretical, unrealistic, & confused analysis.

  4. [...] Notes Towards a People’s History of Pakistan—This idea that the Pakistani people have somehow brought authoritarianism upon themselves (which the middle classes as democratic warriors are now beating back), persists in the face of all evidence to the contrary: the many movements of resistance and self-determination that have emerged in this country’s short history, the combined and well-documented efforts of the manipulations of the ruling establishment, the role of the US in squashing many of these movements, and the immense resilience of the ordinary people of Pakistan in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds.” [...]

  5. [...] 4 شمارہ | English [...]

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