Ethnic Discontent In Pakistan Dr Qaisar Rashid

The question is, if religion is failing in overcoming the ethnic divide in Pakistan, whether democracy is also failing in playing its role of introducing inter-ethnic harmony

Ethnicity conveys a sense of relatedness. The reference of kinship may be a common language, skin colour, geographic origin, or mode of livelihood. Ethnicity is an expression of human endeavour to live together as a community – a closed one. Ethnicity is also a source of identity: the communion should be expressed in one common avowal.

This is no denying the fact that the ethnic make-up of Pakistani society is diverse in nature. Presently, all four provinces have been experiencing ethnic discontent articulated in political language.

In Sindh, the Urdu-speaking community has recently been successful in introducing a local bodies system of their choice in the urban areas that are under their sway. Against that act, among the Sindhi speaking community especially in the rural areas there is disquiet. In Balochistan, the ethnic Baloch apprehend their marginalisation at the hands of non-Baloch, whether local or foreign. Consequently, an insurgency has been fuelled demanding a separate state of Balochistan. In Punjab, the inhabitants of South Punjab bear a grudge against the rest of Punjab for depriving their area of development. They demand that their area should be awarded the status of a separate province. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Hazaras deem that after the change in the name of the province, they have automatically lost their identity. Hence, either the name of the province should be changed once again or they should have a separate province of their own. In short, the phrase ‘ethnic discontent’ is couched in the word ‘separate’ and actuates ethnic nationalism.

In a way, ethnic discontent in Pakistan – a federation – in not a phenomenon taking place spontaneously between different ethnic communities but it is owing to the actions of the state. Misplaced priorities, concentration of legislative and financial powers in the Centre, and intervention in provincial affairs by the state have played a major role in promoting ethnic discontent in Pakistan. The question is, whether the emergence of ethnic discontent is degenerating or rejuvenating Pakistan.

In the ethnic context of Pakistan, one thing is positive: the chances of ancient hatreds bequeathing from the time before 1947 do not exist. Nevertheless, signs are there that after 1947 ancient hatreds are being produced. For instance, the six points articulated by Sardar Akhtar Mengal depict that an ancient hatred has been piling up between the ethnic Baloch and the rest of Pakistan. The trend is perilous and omens bad for Pakistan.

It is surprising to note that people (representing different ethnicities) living together for years, if not for centuries, forget their coexistence and resort to ethnic hatred, which is later on translated into ethnic violence. Different countries have tried to tackle ethnic discontent in different ways.

In the case of Pakistan, there are two main forces that try to lessen the intensity of ethnic discontent and instead produce ethnic harmony. The first such force is religion. Symptoms indicate that in the case of Pakistan religion as a factor is playing a feeble role. The religious compulsion to visit mosques for saying prayers, observe fast and celebrate Eid has failed to transform the followers to get united. Contrarily, the followers still subordinate their religious beliefs to their ethnic affiliations. No doubt, one may call it a problem with the followers and not with religion, but the point is that the problem of ethnic discontent persists despite the deep association of the followers with religion.

Apparently, ethnic oneness holds sway over religious oneness. It seems that the power of ethnicity is stronger than that of religious beliefs. It means that ethnicity is affecting people’s life more than religion does. It also means that religion is proven more an outward expression of faith than an inward agent of change. The reason may be that people think of religion as an outsider and a phenomenon introduced recently to their lives while ethnicity as an insider and an old phenomenon sticking to their lives. Hence, one can safely conclude that Pakistanis are more ethnic than religious.

The second force that tries to lessen the intensity of ethnic discontent and instead produce ethnic harmony is democracy. Some people think that democracy is also opposed to religion. Some people also think that democracy allows ethnic entrepreneurs to vent their grievances and promote the cause of ethnicity. Hence, one way to stifle ethnic discontent is to smother democracy. The military dictators in the past wallowed in the same idea. The proponent of such thoughts overlook the fact that democracy is not only adaptable to religion but it also affords inter-ethnic conflicts to settle down. In the beginning, democracy may offer a space to ethnicity to promote itself but later on, when democracy persists and offers a permanent window to air one’s ethnic concerns, the intensity of ethnicity subsides. Many western countries have adopted the same strategy. In this way, democracy is in opposition to neither religion nor ethnicity.

The question is, if religion is failing in overcoming the ethnic divide in Pakistan, whether democracy is also failing in playing its role of introducing inter-ethnic harmony.

In Pakistan, religion has been given a chance to bridge the ethnic differences. Unfortunately, an overemphasis on religion has introduced bigotry and militancy in society. Now, ethnic discontent is expressed in the language of ethnic violence led and managed by militants, who receive training at the camps run by Islamic militants. In certain areas, fascism has crept in. On the other hand, democracy has not been given a full chance to play its role of bridging the gap between various ethnic communities. Frequent interruptions in the flow of democracy have caused more harm than benefit to the country. The interruptions have made people disgruntled with the country and consequently the people have stopped thinking about the country and started thinking about themselves only.

The solution lies in giving an uninterrupted supply of democracy to Pakistanis, not as a substitute for religion but as a complementary part of religion.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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