On Discrimination against Pashtuns: Reflections from Peshawar

Aug 2015

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Artist: Madiha Hyder "Execute the Perfect Crme"

Artist: Madiha Hyder “Execute the Perfect Crme”

As I drove through Peshawar, it was impossible not to be struck by the graffiti, plastered on the walls of the army cantonment or on public property across the city:

“Stop killing Pashtuns.”

“Army out”.

“America get out”.

On the streets of Peshawar, the propaganda war is in full swing. Numerous efforts to soften the image of the military and its imperial ally, the United States, also occupy premium aesthetic space in Peshawar. Until recently, USAID posters used to stare down from a height at passersby as an effort to win the proverbial hearts and minds. Portraits of slain police and army officers, too, continue to be venerated as shaheed (martyrs) on huge posters that act as visual spaces of mourning.

Despite these efforts, however, a discontent against, as well as a fear of, military and intelligence forces and their relationship with the US is palpable. The graffiti on the walls of the army cantonment is one such indication. Even the USAID posters quickly became the butt of everyday sarcasm.

“They help us rebuild the region, just so they can bomb it all down again,” I was told by a Peshawar resident.

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In an increasing number of Pashtun-centered social media sites, the blogosphere, television programmes, radio shows and social and political circles, the exploitation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan, and Afghanistan and their peoples by a perceived “Punjabized” military and state apparatus is consistently and powerfully expressed. In a series of group interviews that I conducted in Peshawar, common phrases that were repeated in different settings included: “Wherever you look it is Pashtuns being killed”; and “The Punjab does not feel the deaths we Pashtuns do”. At protests in Peshawar and elsewhere, placards boldly state: “Stop Pashtun Genocide”.

What is driving these articulations? Why are these expressions being expressed in private and public ways? Why, how, and when are they connected to ethno-geographic imaginings?

Dehumanizing and romanticizing Pashtuns

In mainstream Pakistani discourse, which is largely dominated by a Punjab-centric lens that also venerates Urdu linguistic and cultural practices, Pashtuns are assumed to be a unified, homogeneous mass and are often dehumanized or romanticized in a number of different ways.

In an ongoing analysis of English language newspaper articles (and thereby part of a middle class and elite readership), dating from 2001-2015, I have documented the frequency with which Pashtuns are identified as “terrorists”, or are blamed as a group for bombings, the drug trade, or criminality in Pakistan by political, military and other actors. And during my previous work, which comparatively analyses the vulnerability of Afghans refugees and urban poor citizens (a category Pashtuns in Pakistan’s major urban centers often fall in), I frequently encountered Pakistani Pashtuns, and Afghans – many of whom were not Pashtun, but Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, and Turkmen – who explained the processes by which they are frequently referred to as “Taliban”, “terrorists”, or “Al-Qaeda” by non-Pashtun actors in their everyday interactions with the State.

In national television talk shows and drama serials the typecasting of Pashtuns as poor or dim is also not uncommon (see, for example, the 2014 drama starring Hamza Ali Abbasi and Sarwat Gilani, Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani’). Similarly, in popular jokes the “Pathan” (which immediately identifies the narrator of the joke as being non-Pashtun or speaking to a non-Pashtun audience), is associated with being “thick skulled”. SMS networks frequently, for example, circulate “Pathan” jokes.  And in cricket, justified technical sporting critiques of Shahid Afridi, a national cricketer of Pashtun origin, are coupled with laying the blame on his (presumably poor) “Pathan” intelligence.

On the opposite side of this, the essentialization of Pashtuns frequently often takes on seemingly positive framings, whereby Pashtuns are romanticized as strong warriors, sites of fair-skinned beauty, or the loyal and hardworking daily laborer. Even Afridi, whilst loathed for his “Pathan” unintelligence is equally idolized for his jazbati (passionate) ways.

These narratives appear to be relatively harmless. Yet each of these narratives – positive and negative – reduce Pashtuns to one-dimensional caricatures. And when coupled with real structural imbalances in Pakistan, which concentrate power in urban elite spaces in Punjab or in Karachi at the expense of other regions, these narratives are far from harmless.

Rather than being fact, these caricatures act as powerful discursive tools that contribute to a number of ways in which the Pashtun identity is affected, discriminated against, and experienced. This essentialization acts first as a tool to reinforce the material exploitation of Pashtuns – be it of labor, of geographic spaces, or of resources by the ruling classes – and, second, to justify military activities in Pashtun regions, whilst simultaneously deflecting attention from the military’s central role in creating the conditions of violence in this region.

Before I discuss this, however, it is important to note how the lumping of all Pashtuns into one category ignores the varied pre-colonial, colonial, and contemporary experiences of Pashtuns in different geographic spaces, such as the “settled” areas, FATA, former Pashtun princely states, as well as Afghanistan. It ignores the historical mobility of Pashtuns (and others) across Central and South Asia, with intermarriages and settlement in areas from Herat to Bengal, to, in more contemporary times, New York and London. And it ignores variations of class, gendered, ethnic, and religious structures within Pashtun societies.

The “terrorist” Pashtun?

In hegemonic Pakistani discourse, the conflation of “Pashtuns” with violence is particularly notable. For example, non-Pakistani Pashtun discourse frequently ignores the complexities of “Pashtun-ness” I just outlined and lumps Pashtuns, Afghans, and the “Mujahideen” in the 1980s or the “Taliban” from the 1990s onward – both Afghan and Pakistani – as being the same, or variations of each other. This acts as a mechanism that justifies the ways in which the Pakistani military has, particularly since the 1980s, used the areas bordering Afghanistan – Balochistan, KPK, and most intensely FATA, which sits outside of the Pakistani Constitution – and Afghanistan itself, as a playground for its own geopolitical agenda, which often dovetail with US imperial interests. This was seen first, during the Cold War context of the Soviet Afghan War, second, during the rise of the Afghan Taliban, and, third, post-2001 in the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT).

In all these periods, there has been a predilection on the part of non-Pashtun Pakistanis and other actors to look at the problem of terrorism as, somehow, a Pashtun problem. Crudely put, the logic runs: “It’s their (“tribal”) people, and their (“tribal”) region, they understand this violence”. This helps to justify and reinforce a system whereby Pashtun regions and the lives in these areas are more expendable because, again, to put it crudely, “they are used to it”. The issue of armed religious militancy is reduced to a “cultural” one. This, however, is a fallacy and powerfully hides from view the material drivers and interests the military and civilian state has historically held in these areas.

In the current moment, for example, the success and presence of the Taliban, which does have local support bases in KPK and FATA, is not simply as a result of this assumed inherent predisposition of Pashtuns and Pashtun society towards violence and extreme social conservatism. Instead, the story of the Taliban, which is itself comprised of different and changing units, is made possible by the longer-term patronage by Pakistani military and intelligence services of different Taliban factions.

This view also ignores the fact that the Taliban is known to have a strong branch based in Punjab and drawn from ethnic Punjabis. Moreover, when local populations do join the Taliban ranks, there are complex regional, historical, political, social, and economic factors that shape these decisions. It has been noted, for example, that the young men that joined the Taliban in Swat did so as a means to access forms of capital that had been withheld to them by local landlords. In 2013, in interviews with young men from Waziristan, I was told how Taliban fighters were initially welcomed in areas as they offered chances of to access “local courts” and, thus, adjudicate disputes that were impossible under the outdated colonial FCR that governs FATA and keeps in power a set of elite exploitative headmen (Maliks).

In addition, stereotypes of the violent Pashtun fail to recognize that since 2001 it is the people of KPK and FATA that been the direct victims of the consistent and ferocious violence of torture, abductions, murder, and bombs, and are increasing the case of psychological traumas in the region. Aside from the spectacular violence of the December 16 Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar, which received national and international media coverage, more often than not, numerous other cases of bombings in KPK and FATA have been reduced to passing headlines.

“Each time this [near silence] happens, it stings,” I was told by Abdul Karim,* a medical doctor in Peshawar, who spoke on the condition that his name be changed.

One cannot help but compare the media coverage of attacks based on their geographic location. Explosions in Lahore or Islamabad, for example, merit breaking news based solely on unconfirmed reports, while confirmed deaths in Peshawar appear to need to meet a much higher threshold in order to make the nightly bulletin, let alone breaking news.

Reduced to one-dimensional caricatures, unworthy of love, it seems impossible that the average Pashtun will be worthy of grief.

The APS attack was an exception to this. An outpouring of genuine shock and grief gripped Pakistan. Much of this is related to the harrowing scale of violence of the attack and the fact that most of the victims were children. Yet it is also related to the fact that the children who were killed were students of an army school – essentially, then, a combination of ’knowable’ Pashtuns, ‘unthreatening’ children, and ’good citizens’ that can be connected to the Pakistani (military-oriented) nation. Indeed, this perhaps explains why when Pashtun children from FATA are killed, also in grand spectacles of violence, maimed and dismembered through US drone attacks or in Pakistani military operations, that no similar outpourings of grief are visible.

This reveals how grades of difference exist within the Pashtun experiences in Pakistan. Most critically, there is a difference between being a resident of Pakistan “proper” and a resident of FATA, which continues to be governed by the racist and colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that positions FATA and its residents in a permanent state of exception outside of the Pakistani Constitution.

Discrimination and experiences of violence (physical and structural), are, of course, not as simple as reducing them to factors of ethnicity and geographic area of origin. Important intersections of gender, class and caste, religion (being non-Muslim), sect (being non-Sunni), legal status within Pakistan (FATA versus non-FATA residents or Kashmiri residents) or being active in trade unions or peasant movementsin a state that hoards power with a military capitalist class, also produce significant differences in the lived experiences in the lives of Pakistanis. Moreover, in the KPK region, a Pashtun ruling class is critiqued by other local minority groups for exerting Pashtun hegemonies over them. (The people of Chitral and the Hazara regions are the most obvious examples of this.)

Ethno-Federal structures of discrimination

Pashtun elites and middle-classes are, and have historically been, a crucial backbone in the military and intelligence services in Pakistan, and in recent years have increased their numbers in the civil service bureaucracy to indicate changes to the Punjabi-Muhajir domination of this institution. Even within FATA, as was the case under British rule, the Pakistani state has been reliant on maintaining its control over the region through the loyalty of Maliks who are remunerated for their services. This, in turn, helps understand why they have been the biggest supporters of the FCR and have consistently reinforced ideas of FATA as an unchanging reified tribal space. Indeed, the Maliks are often the biggest critics of the Taliban, but their concerns are not just tied to Taliban brutality but also to safeguarding their material and social interests. Thus, viewing Pashtun’s growing resentment in Pakistan solely in “ethnic” or “national” terms obfuscates from view the processes through which empire, patronage, and oppression, are possible through class alliances and class exploitation that traverse lines of ethnic belonging.

The Punjab, too, does not exist in a utopian paradise as popular and off-the-cuff non-Punjabi constructions of the “Punjab monolith” imagine. The Punjab of the political leadership and upper-middle classes is very different to the Punjab of the working classes, the rural poor, and the Southern Punjabis, which are engaged in ongoing resistance movements against an oppressive and exploitative ruling class that is located in the Punjab center.

Yet longer-term historic, political, institutional, and economic developments mean that there are vast disparities in the infrastructural and institutional capacities of Punjab as compared to KPK, FATA, Balochistan, Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan, Hunza, Kashmir, and previously, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The disparities in the infrastructural and institutional capacities of cities like Peshawar when juxtaposed with, say Lahore, hit you, smack in the face, as soon as you enter these cities.

In part, investment in these established urban centers is a result of considerations of profit and power, which prioritize investment in areas that guarantee returns. Political scientist Humeira Iqtidar also notes that they are shaped by the pressures of globalization which means a small number of big cities are sucking in resources (such as Lahore and Karachi), at the expense of other regional centers, even within the Punjab.

Writing on “Racism and Culture”, Frantz Fanon poignantly says: “It is not possible to enslave men without logically making them inferior through and through.” If the Punjab’s ruling centers are wealthy and have developed infrastructures, roads, and institutions it is only possible because of the exploitation that the Punjab center enacts on other parts of the country, be it Sui or Karak’s gas, the cheap labor of rural migrants, refugees, undocumented workers, displaced persons, and previously in the case of East Pakistan, jute exports, as well as of its own urban and rural masses.

At the level of the individual, this is where the narratives of the “strong”, “dim”, “loyal and hardworking” Pashtun that are commonplace in urban centers like Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore, where high numbers of Pashtuns are employed in daily wage labor, take on a more serious tone. Rather than accepting these stereotypes as displaying traits unique to Pashtuns, it would be more helpful to analyze the structural conditions that have, over a number of years, pushed Pashtuns into migrations and wage labor in these cities. These reasons include military operations, FCR laws and the uneven distribution of resources. Instead, however, these stereotypes are the immediate fallback, which in itself act as important ways to reinforce a cheap labor force that often serves the needs of urban elites or is helping transform places like Karachi into modern “world-class” cities.

Dehumanizing and inferiorizing Pashtun (and other) spaces then, upholds the ways in which these spaces and its peoples are exploited for the benefit of centers of power and the ruling classes that inhabit them. KPK, FATA, and Balochistan, have borne the brunt of conflicts in the region for the benefit of the Pakistani center and its ruling classes because seemingly positive narratives say Pashtuns, as “warriors” can “deal with this” or because negative narratives say the Taliban is an “internal [Pashtun] problem”, absolving the ruling classes from any responsibility or creating the conditions of violence in the first place.

In a global, racialized world system two things are clear. First, that all non-white persons are subject to discrimination. Second, that the wealth of ‘Western’ nations, to again borrow the words of Fanon, “is built on the wealth stolen from the underdeveloped peoples”. Within Pakistan, parallels are visible via a military and bureaucratic elite whose position of strength and comfort within Pakistan is made possible by the exploitation of “peripheral” provinces and peoples, as well as the rural and urban poor, and whose interest lies in mythologizing the subversive, “dangerous”, or “dim” nature of the Pashtun, Baloch, Kashmiri, and numerous others in order to continue its exploitation of these people and/or regions.

In this context, then, the dehumanizing discourses surrounding Pashtuns – and others and along intersecting lines – take on a more serious and revealing tone.

Yet these forms of dehumanization are not going unnoticed. The Pashtuns are reacting.

The writing, as I saw in Peshawar, is on the wall.

*                             *                              *

Sanaa Alimia holds a PhD from the Politics and International Studies Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

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19 Responses to On Discrimination against Pashtuns: Reflections from Peshawar

  1. Hanif on Aug 2015 at 1:00 PM

    Great article.
    Good job Sanaa.
    More needs to be done to raise awareness for this issue

  2. k.khan on Aug 2015 at 1:09 AM

    Thought provoking article.

  3. Saira Mahmood on Aug 2015 at 4:32 AM

    Absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.

  4. sabz ali khan on Jun 2016 at 4:40 AM

    Well. as a pushtoon i would say.
    Its our own fault
    We,while dealing with our neighbour of other culture forget our being human .we react rather in bizzare like ” all devoted,brave,very very extrovert” manner.our hospitality have always been an economic sreess for us but we will never retract from it becouse our standards of honour have always been enticed and rather designed for us by ” others”,our love for countey has been synthesised in the lab of full time deception

    We are lost to the fairyland stories of religion and pak sarzameen ka nizaam
    Qowati akhowati awaam

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