Infrastructures of Colonialism and Resistance

Aug 2015

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Issue 9  Essay

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In April, 2015, during a visit to Pakistan, the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promised a $46 billion dollar investment package. The breathtaking amount is to be invested in Pakistan’s eroding infrastructure, including transport, communication, and power generation and distribution projects. The sheer scale of the projects, collectively known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is massive: The Chinese commitment is greater than the total investment from all sources combined coming into Pakistan over the past decade. The timing of the announcement is also important:The Pakistani economy is in a shambles, in no small part due to insufficient infrastructure to support economic production.

One section of the project involves building 3,000 kilometers of roads and rails that would link Gwadar, a port city in Balochistan, to the city of Kashgar in China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang. Advocates of this planned Chinese-funded bonanza in infrastructural investment argue that the plan means development for the impoverished province of Balochistan: roads and rails on which to travel and move goods, power plants to light up houses and factories, and a magnificent port to plug the region into circuits of global commerce. What’s not to like? On the surface, the Chinese commitment is therefore to be welcomed. It is, after all, a project for Pakistan’s national development.

Or is it? Provincial assemblies in Pakistan have started raising objections concerning the route, transparency, and overall wisdom of the CPEC.Baloch rights activists and politicians have been particularly concerned about the CPEC. Many Baloch activists and intellectuals have long been opposed to development projects implemented in Balochistan by the central Pakistani state–let alone those funded by Chinese capital. Resistance to this type of development has been expressed through extreme violence: For example, on April 20 this year non-Baloch laborers were massacred, presumably by ethno-nationalist militants, for constructing an army-backed dam near Turbat. Indeed, armed Baloch resistance to the activities of the central Pakistani state has come and gone in waves since 1948, when militants actively resisted the incorporation of the Khanate of Kalat into Pakistan. The latest wave of violent resistance has been ongoing for the past decade, in the form of a battle between Baloch militants and rights activists, and the security forces aiming to suppress them.

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Why would anyone, and particularly the poorest among us, turn their backs on growth and development?

The standard answer is that a backward and reactionary minority is holding the region back from its tryst with development. Although such a mindset is probably shared by many in the armed forces (and perhaps even amongst the urban middle-classes in Punjab and Sindh more generally), it is particularly visible in the words of former Chief of Army Staff and military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. Presumably, as part of his bemusing attempt to participate in Pakistani politics as a civilian, in March of 2012 Musharraf wrote a twopart op-ed in The News titled “Understanding Balochistan.” The article is a reaction primarily to accusations of human rights violations by Pakistani forces in Balochistan during and after his tenure.

Musharraf argues that the Baloch rights movement has, among other activities, “undertake[n] terrorist activity to disrupt/damage national infrastructure” and has thus “openly [challenged] the writ of the government.” This type of challenge “is intolerable for any state and needs to be dealt with[, with] an iron hand.”“The question that arises,” Musharraf continues, is: “who are these militants opposing Pakistan and engaging in separatism?” His answer is that there are “vicious, unforgiving, and decadent” tribal leaders, or sardars, that “believe in keeping their tribes backward and under subjugation.” He concedes that “there is no doubt that Balochistan is the most backward and most deprived province of Pakistan.” But the fundamental explanation for this state of underdevelopment is “unfortunately [because] the sardars themselves did not favor development in their areas.” Moreover, these sardars “planted and gradually nourished” an “anti-Pakistan, anti-army” attitude amongst the broader population. In other words, the source of Balochistan’s troubles can be found within its own borders. The well-documented and troubled political history of Pakistan-Baloch relations, and indeed center-province relations more broadly, is apparently not of historical or analytical importance.

Spatial, or place-based, relations are key to understanding development and underdevelopment. Analysis cannot be reduced to the language of time–where all we discuss is how “advanced”or “backward”one part of the country is compared to another. It must also include the language of place, which acknowledges how regions are locked in relations of dependence–or even domination. Thus under-development is not a historical stage that comes before development. Instead, under-development in one region is the necessary flip-side of development in another region. The rhetoric of “advanced”and “backward”reproduces dangerous narratives about those who resist authoritarian development. By sticking only to the language of advanced and backward, resisting the state comes to be dismissed as simply ignorant (or worse, malicious.) To do this is unfair and undemocratic, because it justifies oppression and domination in the near-term, continually deferring emancipation and equality to the long-term. Progressives need another way to think and speak about development, nation-building, and infrastructure.

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The thoughts of Frantz Fanon, a militant revolutionary and psychologist who died in 1961, provides more fertile analytical tools to develop an analysis of the CPEC, and by extension the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan. Like the Baloch resisting authoritarian development, Fanon identifies a “colonizer” and a “colonized” relationship. In Fanon’s time, the colonizer was France in Algeria. In our time, and in our case, the colonizer is the central Pakistani state in Balochistan. In Pakistan, the role of the colonizeris played by domestic military, bureaucratic, and industrial elites (primarily but not exclusively from Punjab) that collaborate with foreign elites and sacrifice the nation’s best interest in favor of the narrow interests of their own family and class.

Fanon argued that the social-scientific and political categories–like ‘modernity’and ‘development’–simply do not work when trying to understand the actions of colonized peoples in colonized spaces. This is especially true when we speak of the attitude of the colonized towards a colonizers’attempts to develop or modernize its colonized spaces through technology. Technological impositions from the colonizer are rejected, often violently, by the colonized.This is true even when technological ‘gifts’may appear to be universally beneficial, such as in the case of vaccines or dams. The colonized cannot disassociate the technological artifact from the culture and agenda of the colonizer.

Thus, the resistance against dams in Balochistan is not a rejection of modernity. It is, first and foremost, a rejection of the colonizer’s version of modernity. For the colonized, the colonizer’s version of modernity cannot be separated from the will to subordinate the colonized. The question, actually, is not why politically and intellectually active Baloch reject the development of the colonizer. The question, instead, is why nearly 70 years after the end of the British Empire, Pakistan continues to act like a colonizing power within its own borders.

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Pakistan has failed to develop a compelling nationalist project. Instead, it relies on coercion. This translates into its development policies: It must implement them without democratic debate, through brute military force. Ethno-nationalist militancy is a structural consequence of a political failure to address the issues thrown up by uneven geographic development, and the domination of a technocratic military-administrative caste.

To move away from the current state of affairs, it is necessary to articulate an emancipatory national project. Such a cohesive national project, which commands the loyalty of a wide spectrum of the population, is what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. In contrast to domination, which relies on coercion and force, hegemony is mobilized through cultural leadership and the articulation of a moral vision. Gramsci, reflecting on the political history of his country, bitterly criticized Italian politicians and intellectuals for failing to articulate what he called a “national-popular”vision of Italy. Namely, an Italy that politically bridged the divide between city and country, or developed and relatively underdeveloped regions.


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The heart-breaking story of the Pakistani national project is that this type of vision has never been articulated in a way that is compelling to the vast majority of the population, especially non-Punjabis. Instead, leaders and intellectuals of the central state continue to articulate an impoverished vision of the Pakistani nation. One that is based on a hatred of India, the cultivation of a patriarchy, the mistrust of social minorities, and the subordination of domestic development goals to the chauvinistic and militarized agenda of ‘security.’This weak national vision is compelling primarily to a subset of people who live in the developed heartland of Pakistan, i.e. a ribbon of territory around the Indus Rivers as it crosses through Punjab.

Today, this weak official nationalism is challenged from all sides. Most press goes to cover just one version of this on-going challenge, namely the one that comes from right-wing fundamentalists who clothe their reactionary views in the garb of Islam. These Islamists identify Islam as the national project that will integrate those living within the border of the Pakistani state.

But there is a different sort of integrationist nationalism emerging, one that holds the potential to become truly national-popular in the Gramscian sense: in the form of a solidarity between people who reside in the colonial heartland–places like central Punjab and Karachi–with people who reside in colonized spaces, especially Balochistan. This emerging national-popular solidarity was at display when Sabeen Mahmud hosted a debate about the Pakistani state’s colonial occupation in Balochistan. That is why she was seen as a threat, despite the marginal political position she inhabited. This emerging national-popular solidarity is so powerful that the violent apparatus of repression rapidly swings into play even when words of solidarity are whispered in low-profile settings like Mahmud’s The Second Floor (T2F). When young Lahoris and Karachiites start to empathize with the Baloch-as-colonized, they will start to ask questions that make the corrupt and visionless elite uncomfortable. The interbred coterie of industrialists, financiers, generals, bureaucrats, and landlords, who have looted the country for three quarters of a century, must be forced to face the questions that are raised by the politics of national-popular solidarity.

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Musharraf ended his 2012 op-ed by defending his tenure in power as one of the most beneficial for Balochistan. He lists infrastructural achievements to back up his claim: the port at Gwadar, roads, dams, canals, mining operations, and pipelines for natural gas. The case for the CPEC can be made in similar terms–the more structures of networks of concrete and iron that are built, the better.

What Musharraf and colonial approaches to national infrastructure more broadly fail to understand is that what looks like ‘national infrastructure’ from the perspective of the economic and political core is often justifiably perceived as ‘colonial infrastructure’ from the perspective of those experiencing underdevelopment. Musharraf’s catch-phrase, with which he sells himself to chauvinist nationalists in the core regions of central Punjab and Karachi must sound extraordinarily hollow and arrogant in the periphery. “Pakistan first!” Musharraf exclaims. The critical response must be quick: Which Pakistan? Whose Pakistan?

Having the courage to ask these questions, and seek political answers, results in a very different take on the CPEC question. First and foremost, such questions explicitly turn Musharraf’s policy on its head. Rather than say “Pakistan first”, it says: “Balochistan first.”It pushes for apolicy shift on the question of infrastructural investment. The emerging national-popular project demands that Baloch people, and their democratically elected representatives, should be receiving the lion’s share of the economic benefits that flow from economic investment. It also means a guarantee to substantially decentralize political power and cultural autonomy. Last, but certainly not least, an emancipatory national project also addresses power structures within Balochistan, by calling for a dramatic redistribution of status, wealth, and power within Baloch society, as well as in the very electoral structures of Pakistan, so that the process of elite capture is not replicated within Balochistan at a smaller scale.

A national-popular political project rallies against colonial infrastructures like the CPEC, and for anti-colonial spaces like Mahmud’s T2F. The thickening and proliferation of this type of political infrastructure, and the continued resistance to infrastructural projects like the CPEC, could enable the construction of a critical solidarity across the divide of Pakistani core and periphery. That type of radical solidarity is a prerequisite to making physical infrastructures like the CPEC–along with broader political, social, cultural and economic structures–serve the ends of emancipatory and truly national, not colonial, development.

Majed Akhter is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Indiana University-Bloomington.

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6 Responses to Infrastructures of Colonialism and Resistance

  1. Maha on Aug 2015 at 7:47 AM

    Well-argued, especially through the lens of social power structures. One point, however, that is missing from this article is the idea of Chinese colonialism. The assumption throughout this piece is that Pakistan’s central government is repressive, and is all set for CPEC infrastructure, irrespective of the rights of people. However, there are deep fractures in the “elite’s” own control of the state, and this is clear in the vision for CPEC. China will be executing the projects as if the Pakistani land were its own colony. It is not alarmist to suggest that the real colonizers will be the Chinese government, and not the weak central Pakistani government, or its elite

    • sardar hussain on Aug 2015 at 12:18 PM

      Maha’s point is well-taken

  2. Sionnan O'Keane on Aug 2015 at 9:13 AM

    An absolutely excellent and thought-provoking essay. What I would love to see is another article using the same framework to discuss the colonial consequences of the CPEC for Xinjiang’s non-Han population.

  3. jb on Aug 2015 at 2:21 PM

    Good from a sociological perspective perhaps. Faulty and inadequate from an economic and IR perspective.

  4. M. Adnan on Aug 2015 at 3:14 PM

    I have some reservations regarding the article framework. Author refers to the Gramsci and argued about hegemony which will in the last result produce national narrative and national solidarity. Applying this on balochistan, where ‘baloch’ consider there selves a separate ‘nation’ , can not ameliorate their pains solely by cultural hegemony of the elites. Moreover ‘hegemony’ is a lethal tool in the hands of state.It will not use it solely to accommodate other ethnic groups to address their economic conditions but to add the profit and power to its own hands. Moreover colonizer/colonized binary in the case of balochistan makes sense but applying this framework and justifying the killing, in my humble opinion, a little flawed. As there are other militant groups who have different ideas on the basis of which they killed health worker and scare the people to death.

  5. Majed Akhter on Aug 2015 at 9:42 AM

    Hello, author here.

    Thanks all very much for these thought-provoking responses to the article.

    Maha, Sardar Hussain, and Sionnan O’Keane: I completely agree with you – the situation is more complicated than I have presented in this short article. I have written elsewhere on Pakistani inter-elite conflicts in the context of another massive infrastructural project – namely, the Indus Basin Project of the 1960s and 1970s. I had room to develop a more nuanced analysis in these articles, and I’d be happy to share these articles if you email me. I want to have a deeper understanding of Chinese overseas development, so the questions you raised are certainly of great interest to me.

    JB: Yes, this article is not written from an orthodox economics or IR perspective. I depart from orthodox economics in that I understand development to be a complicated political process, and not simply a matter of modeling marginal costs and benefits. I disagree with the orthodox interpretation of infrastructure (as found in the World Bank’s 2009 World Development Report, for example) as simply a tool that facilitates economic flows. I depart from orthodox IR in that I think it is important to complement the analysis of inter-state relations with other scales – for example, the scale of global capitalism, the scale of the household, and the scale of the region. I thank you for your comment.

    M. Adnan: Your hesitation about understanding national projects for hegemony as progressive is well founded. National projects have historically been very violent, wherever you look in the world. However, and I am very open to discussion on this, I do not see how progressives can significantly advance their goals at this moment in history without engaging questions of nation and state power. This does not mean that I think transnational movements, human rights, and civil society empowerment are unimportant. Perhaps what I am trying to say is that we should not let go of the idea of a progressive national project, but at the same time we should always be on guard against the inherent dangers of the project. This is what I take away from Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”.

    Also, my intent was not at all to “justify killing”, but to try to step out of the “civilized/barbaric” or “developed/underdeveloped” framework to understand violence with greater attention to historical and geographical context.

    Thanks again everyone for their comments.

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