Like a Broken Record: Selig Harrison on Ethnic Discord in Pakistan

Selig Harrison has made a career of predicting the imminent break-up of South Asian states.  He began with his 1960 work, “India: The Most Dangerous Decades.” Thereafter, he turned his eyes toward Pakistan, where his fetish for balkanistans seemed to be most satiated.

Now in his late seventies or early eighties, Harrison continues to harp on this theme.  He’s been particularly active this week.

Yesterday, he had an op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that “the United States should put the [A.Q.] Khan issue at the top of its agenda in Islamabad” — so as to clarify whether North Korea imported prototype centrifuges for uranium enrichment.  Something makes me think there are other pressing issues in Pakistan.  In his brilliance, Harrison recommends that Musharraf, ala the late Benazir Bhutto, give the IAEA access to Khan.  Sounds like assisted suicide for a terminally-ill politician to me.

But wait, Harrison wasn’t done for the week.  His name graces the op-ed page of today’s New York Times.  Harrison goes back to his old theme: the fracturing of Pakistan on ethnic lines.  He was big on an independent Balochistan back in the 70s.  He fancied an independent Pakhtunistan as well (perhaps without giving much thought to how that would impact Afghanistan). 

Those themes reemerge in today’s piece, an exercise in dishonest reductionism.

The Problem
Harrison argues:

“the existing multiethnic Pakistani state is not likely to survive for long unless it is radically restructured.”

Why?  Because:

“the Punjabi-dominated regime of Pervez Musharraf is headed for a bloody confrontation with the country’s Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi minorities that could well lead to the breakup of Pakistan into three sovereign entities.”

It’s not simply a matter of the inordinate influence of a Punjabi majority overrepresented in the most powerful institiution, the army.  No, Harrison claims that the Pathan, Baloch, and Sindhis have:

faced “Punjabi domination for centuries.”  

This convenient imagination of an unfounded historical Punjabi domination with centuries-long roots Iraqicizes the Pakistan discourse, making it more accessible to provincial readers States-side.  The Punjabis become the Sunnis.  The Baloch, Sindhis, and Pathan become the Kurds and Shi’a (discounting their numerical majority).

Above all, it assumes Pakistan is a country with overlapping cleavages all subsumed under ethnicity.  Under this logic, Punjabis are powerful and rich; the Pathan and others are weak and poor.  

The reality is that Pakistan’s elite is more ethnically representative than Harrison allows.  There is a strong national presence of Pathans in the military, Urdu-speaking muhajirs in the bureacracy, Memons in commerce, and Sindhi political elites (Bhuttos, Legharis, Soomros).  The average Pakistani, irrespective of ethnicity, remains poor, underserved, and disenfranchsized.  Yes, allocation of development funds have tilted toward Punjab, but at the same time, the political elite in Balochistan and Sindh have done a poorer job at serving their constituencies.  Baloch sardars have suppressed their pions; the gas concessions they receive don’t trickle down to their peasants–Pakistan’s least educated and most underserved.  Similarly, elites from Sindh, including those from Larkana, have done little toward improving the lot of their peasantry.  After all, if their pions become educated and leave the plantation, who’ll tend to the fields?  Who will elect them to the National Assembly en masse?  And so while ethnic nationalism in Pakistan is a product of real divisions and inequity, it is also a tool leveraged by one faction of elites to maximally extract concessions (power, wealth) from another faction of elites–all for personal gain. 

Ayesha Siddiqa aptly characterizes the elite political culture in Pakistan:  

The feudal attitude and the culture of power have proliferated and entered all institutions. The key, of course, is the concentration of power and the subservience of groups of people under a central authority.

This is not to discount the reality and danger of Pakistan’s divisions.  I have argued previously that Pakistan’s present crisis furthers the risk of the country “tearing apart at the seams.”  But the seams are many: language and ethnicity, ideology and politics, sect, sub-ethnic (e.g. tribe), urban vs. rural, civil vs. military, etc. 

Harrison privleges ethnic nationalism, and those who agitate in its name, over other collectivisms.  And what about cross-cutting cleavages, like the rule of law movement, Islamism, and–God-forbid–Pakistani nationalism?  Focusing on a Oxbridge feudal with guns helps Harrison simplify a country of 160 million people.

Convenient Omissions
Toward simplication, Harrison neglected to mention at all the 15 million or so Urdu-speaking muhajirs (migrants from India) in Sindh.  Musharraf is a muhajir and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)–a muhajir party–was part of Musharraf’s ruling coaltion.

He says the Baloch “are forging military links with Sindhi nationalist groups that have been galvanized into action by the death of Benazir Bhutto, a Sindhi hero as was her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto”–the same Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that crushed the Baloch rebellion in the 70s.  But acknowledging that would challenge his bets on a Baloch-Sindhi state. 

The religious character of the militancy in FATA is suppressed to give it an overly Pashtun nationalist color.  That also requires ignoring intra-Pashtun divides: Durrani vs. Ghilzai; urban vs. rural; Afghan vs. Pakistani; Sunni vs. Shi’a; and the anomaly that is the tribes of FATA.

Harrison treats ethnic separatism as a natural phenomenon.  Aside from the fact that all nationalisms are constructed, ethnic separatism in Pakistan has had its fair share of foreign support.  Afghanistan, India, and the Soviet Union actively supported, armed, and housed Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi separatist groups.  Baloch separatists remain housed in Kabul.  India’s dozen or so consulates across Afghanistan surely aren’t just giving out free copies of Bollywood VCDs or posters of Salman Khan.

Finally, why should the concern with ethnic separatism be limited to Pakistan?  The idea that ethnic discord naturally lends toward secession is a slippery slope argument can be applied to neighboring India, which has its own fair share of insurgencies, across the Middle East from Iran through Morocco, and to fragile states across the Ferghana Valley.

The Solution
Harrison’s “radical” restructruing would result in:

“a loosely united, confederated Pakistan…preserved by reinstating and liberalizing the defunct 1973 Constitution.”   

Here’s what “liberalizing” the constitution means:

“Eventually, the minorities want a central government that would retain control only over defense, foreign affairs, international trade, communications and currency.”

“[The central government] would no longer have the power to oust an elected provincial government, and would have to renegotiate royalties on resources with the provinces.”

The 1973 Constitution is a product of unanimous consensus.  It remains in effect, albeit in a highly adulterated form.  Reverting the constitution close to its original form is essential; but more importantly, the document needs to be respected.  More than constitutional reform, Pakistan needs the rule of law.  These are not mutually exclusive.  But what’s the value of a law that isn’t respected?  Pakistan needs a functioning, independent judiciary–something that is supported throughout country.  The deposed Baloch chief justice rallied Pakistanis in Peshawar, Lahore, and other major cities on this issue.

Moreover, the ’73 Constitution provides Pakistan with a federalist government and offers an underused mechanism for addressing inter-provincial disputes: the Council of Common Interests.  Some tweaking might be necessary.  But a radical federalism is neither necessary, nor is it necessarily in the best interests of Pakistan.  It can actually reify singular cleavages, i.e. ethnic/provincialism, do little toward improving good governance, reducing poverty, etc, and strengthen rapacious notables (as confessionalism has done for Lebanon’s zu’amaa).

There are other proposals toward creating provincial equity that deserve consideration.  One is dividing Pakistan into much smaller provinces.  This approach would avoid reinforcing ethnic divisions within Pakistan. 

America to the Rescue?
Harrison argues that constitutional changes in Pakistan require “American pressure.”  He writes:

“the United States and other foreign donors use their enormous aid leverage to convince Islamabad that it should not only put the 1973 Constitution back into effect, but amend it to go beyond the limited degree of autonomy it envisaged.”

So “Islamabad”–whoever that is!–must hand over A.Q. Khan (top of the agenda in Harrison’s first op-ed), defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and then strengthen federalism.  

To top it off, an overwhelmed central government in Pakistan now must be prodded by an overburdened and undercapable Washington.

Who should Washington prod?  General Kayani, who doesn’t want to get involved in politics?  Pervez Musharraf, who’s on his way out?  The next prime minister in a hung parliament? 

Does Harrison seriously think Washington can actually do more good than harm in this regard?  That’ll play well in Pakistan–Washington pushing for a weakening of the central government.  Add that to the talk about seizing Pakistani nukes, entering the tribal areas, propping up Musharraf, and opposing the independent judiciary.   Makes you wonder if there’s anything worse than a Pandora’s box.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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