Legibility as a Political Project | TQ SALON

Feb 2015

Conversation: Difference and the State

This is the second essay in this conversation. TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia.Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The first essay is here, the second is this, and the third is here.


TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia. Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The first essay in this conversation is here, the second is this and the third is here. See other conversations here.

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Modern forms of governance do not simply enumerate citizens; they produce them by rendering them into being through the states’ practices of categorizing identities and populations. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott has aptly observed how the state works to render the society and the population transparent and simplified so that the various state functions–conscription, taxation, quotas, even rights–can be carried out. Legibility, as Scott says, is “a central problem in statecraft.” 

In this TQ conversation, we explore the production of legibility by the Pakistani state. How does the state produce normative and marginal populations? How are minority rights, sexual rights and religious rights mediated by the state? What is the relationship between the central problem of statecraft–legibility–and disbursement of rights and justice? What might failures of the state to render certain beings legible tell us about the legibility project as well as possibilities of countering the logic of the state? 

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To appreciate the effects and impact of the practice of “legibility” – or of categorizing identities and populations – it must be situated within the larger context of countervailing forces, policies and political goals that overlook, deny, or even suppress difference. In socially diverse and fragmented post-colonial states like Pakistan, the state has historically assumed the role of an overarching, centralizing force, abhorring the assertion of identities external to or divergent from the official articulation of citizenship. Thus, questions of how, to what extent, how effectively, and with what consequences, legibility renders different classes of citizens into being must be viewed in light of the state’s counter-project of homogenization.

Legibility is not merely a “central problem” of statecraft and bureaucratic governance, but also a veritable channel for political cooptation, accommodation and identity recognition, particularly in heterogeneous societies. As such, it is not always an intended consequence or neatly defined outcome of state policy, but more an iterative process intimately linked to the political objectives of group assimilation and, conversely, marginalization or exclusion. Consequently, legibility does not exclusively originate from the state, and thus cannot be conceived uniformly as a top-down instrument of state functionality. Rather, it implicates both vertical contestations between the state and its citizens and horizontal contestations between non-state actors and groups over resources, privileges and rights. The categorizations that arise from horizontal group to group interactions may be as manufactured, enduring, and potent as those from vertical state-citizen relations.


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In what follows, my object is not to nullify the state-centric or state-generated representation of legibility, but to suggest that it is a much more complex and expansive phenomenon. I draw on examples from my work on the restructuring of Pakistan as an “ethnic federation” in the 1970s, focusing on the post-independence history of the province of Sindh and the emergence of the Muhajir ethno-national identity in response to the ethnically organized federal structure institutionalized by the 1973 Constitution. 

Legibility and homogenization

The Pakistani state’s practice of simplifying and categorizing its highly diverse population began almost simultaneously with independence. One of the most conspicuous examples of this was the quota system for the federal bureaucracy, originally introduced in 1948. This created, amongst other things, a category of “potential migrants from India” as a special dispensation for the Muhajirs. While this was an express attempt at creating an identifiable class of citizens for compensatory measures, other interventions of legibility were not so direct.

For instance, two executive decisions instituted in the first year of independence created a number of cleavages between the indigenous Sindhi population and the Muhajirs. The first of these was the promotion of Urdu as the national language on the pretext of national unity and cohesion, and the second was the detachment of the capital city of Karachi from Sindh and its conversion into a separate federal district. Both of these policies had the effect of magnifying and reifying preferential access to resources in favor of the Muhajirs. In particular, the urban-rural divide between Muhajirs and Sindhis ensured that just as the Muhajirs’ access to the center was enhanced and pressures to assimilate with the Sindhis lessened, the Sindhis were pushed to the periphery in their own province.

Interestingly, these efforts in making “Muhajirs” legible through preferential policies did not have the effect of compartmentalizing them into a new discrete identity. To the contrary, it enabled Muhajirs to portray an ethnically neutral “Pakistani” identity united by the bonds of Islam and the national language. Scholars like Hamza Alavi and Tariq Rahman refer to this centralizing tendency of dominant groups to articulate their identity in homogenous terms as “official nationalism.” On the other hand, the same policies compelled the Sindhis to adopt a more entrenched and territorially defined ethno-linguistic identity based on a moral claim to indigenousness. Through this group claim of legitimacy on the basis of indigenousness, Sindhi nationalists sought to challenge and neutralize the perceived instruments of Muhajir dominance, namely, the federal bureaucracy and the Urdu language. Thus, the state’s projects of legibility and unification operated simultaneously and in tension with each other to produce, at times, unintended reactions.

Legibility as political solution

Quite apart from implementing direct and indirect classifications of citizens as a tool of governance, the Pakistani state and political elite have also engaged in the project of legibility as a way of accommodating group-based political demands for identity recognition and sub-national autonomy. The period of democratization and constitution-making in Pakistan in the 1970s offers a prime example. The hardening of ethno-linguistic identities in the 1960s under Ayub Khan’s One Unit plan and the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 created a politically charged environment that demanded an inclusive state-building process that would accommodate ethnic claims while safeguarding national unity. Indeed, the overall electoral outcome signaled an ethno-nationalist triumph, in that all the major winners advocated some form of provincial autonomy. The Awami League in East Pakistan and the National Awami Party (NAP) in West Pakistan pushed for a bold confederal structure of government, while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in West Pakistan argued for a federation with a viable center. After the secession of East Pakistan, consensus-building for the new constitution revolved around the PPP and the NAP, whose political ideologies and motivations influenced the federal settlement of 1973 in many ways.


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The 1973 constitution granted, for the first time, de jure provincial autonomy and self-government to Pakistan’s four main territorial sub-units in a manner that significantly enhanced the constitutional-political recognition of the ethno-linguistic groups with which these units were symbolically and historically relatednamely, Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtuns, and the Baloch. Put another way, the new Federal Republic was an “ethnic federation” that organized political power along ethno-linguistic lines by selectively creating de jure groups and providing constitutional protection to their ethno-centered policies. Moreover, the monopolization of the constitution-making process by ethno-nationalists left little room for the representation of minority groups that did not belong to the de jure identities, or those like the Muhajirs who lacked a historical claim to a regional identity. While this federalization experiment was short-lived, it nevertheless provides an important illustration of the practice of legibility as deeply political and its instrumentalization for recognizing difference and defusing group conflict. As Katharine Adeney argues, the recent Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment has – after a long hiatus – resuscitated and further augmented the ethno-centric federal contract of the 1970s.

Producing legibility

This leads me to my final point: that the state does not enjoy a monopoly over the production of legibility. I illustrate this through a theoretical framework emerging from my work on the link between federal design and ethnic conflict. I have argued in that work that when a sub-national indigenous majority (like the Sindhis) and a local dominant-immigrant minority (like the Muhajirs) are put in direct political competition through a federal structure that reverses the dominance of the minority group by granting the majority group a privileged de jure status, there is a tendency toward the ethnicization of the minority group’s identity and deepening of inter-ethnic conflict. I refer to this phenomenon as the “minorities-within-minorities” problem.

Discussing this in the context of the Sindhi-Muhajir conflict, I contend that the rise of Muhajir ethno-nationalism in the 1970s was a rational response to the introduction of an ethnicity-based federal structure that caused a reversal in the historical Sindhi-Muhajir power relations. The formal ethnicity-based autonomy of the Sindhis enabled them to implement an ethno-centered political agenda in the province, which included the use of Sindhi as a regional language as well as educational policies and quotas of ethnic preference that favored Sindhis to the exclusion of the Muhajirs. The increased visibility and identity entrenchment for the Sindhis on the basis of this agenda meant that other groups that did not conform to a de jure ethnic identity were disenfranchised from the political process. This was especially so in the case of the Muhajirs for whom the federalization process entailed an about-face in dominance and privilege.

In the circumstances, the only effective route available to the Muhajirs for political mobilization and inter-ethnic differentiation was through the construction of a “fifth Muhajir nationality” at par with the de jure identities. But quite apart from the homogenization of the Muhajirs around this ethno-nationalist identity, the new federation deeply intensified the ethnic hatred and conflict between Sindhis and Muhajirs, and created an intractable minorities-within-minorities problem that persists today. In this example, the immediate source of legibility was the social group itself in its struggle for political empowerment.

Legibility is thus a larger socio-political phenomenon, arising from different sources, interactions and contestations at different times, and performing various functions of governance, group recognition and political bargaining.

Maryam S. Khan is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), Lahore, Pakistan.

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