Political Conflict in Pakistan
by Prof Mohammad Waseem
Hurst Publishers 2022, 576pp
Reviewed by: Dr Salman Rafi Sheikh, LUMS
29 March 2024
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Drawing from multiple sources – books, newspapers, archives, including Pakistan’s parliamentary debates and records of the British High Commission – Mohammad Waseem’s Political Conflict in Pakistan makes a valuable contribution to the political history of Pakistan. Waseem, a well-known Pakistani academic, provides a focused and in-depth analysis of Pakistan’s politics, its various constitutive actors and institutions, as well as the diverse ways in which the overall political landscape has developed and transformed over more than 70 years. Each chapter sets the stage for the subsequent chapters, allowing the reader to understand his analysis and arguments.

This book is not the first one to study political conflict in Pakistan. For instance, Christophe Jaffrelot’s The Pakistan Paradox, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s The Politics of Common Sense and McCartney’s and Zaidi’s edited volume New Perspectives on Pakistan’s Political Economy are among the recently published books that deal with the themes running through Waseem’s book. But where Waseem’s work stands out is its treatment of political conflict as a transformative category in itself, an agent that has both “constructive” and “destructive” (p. 1) properties and both an independent and a dependent variable. Waseem’s argument marks a significant departure from the existing literature, which sees political conflict as an outcome emerging from the divergent interests of various political actors and institutions (lacking any causal capacity to produce changes in the state and/or new conflicts).

In this context, Waseem invites us to conceptualise conflict as a “loss of peace, prosperity and life, but also constitutive of a new social and political order” (p. 5). Accordingly, Waseem studies conflict along four dimensions: 1. “State: Conflict within”, 2. “State and ethnicity”, 3. “State and religion”, and 4. “Subaltern (non-conflict)” (p. 3). The seven chapters that follow the introduction and precede the conclusion deal with these four themes in a detailed manner, with each chapter showing how a specific instance of conflict emerged – often in the colonial period – and how it subsequently transformed the political field as a whole. To the extent that Waseem explains the production and reproduction of conflict, his book avoids writing an overt prescription for progressive change in Pakistan – something that does characterise the work of scholars like Akhtar (2022; Jan 2021).

Waseem aims to explain the conflict between the ‘State and ethnicity’ – between forces pushing for ethnic diversity and forces pushing for a unified, religiously defined national identity. But his analysis does not study the conflict that, for instance, exists within ethnicities. Intra-group conflict, or what Farhan Hanif Siddiqi (2012) calls the politics of ethnicity in the context of Pakistan, has transformative capacity as well – to the extent that, for instance, without the support of the Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), the 18th Amendment – which reversed many of the constitutional changes made by Punjabi-dominated military regimes from Zia-ul-Haq onwards – could not have happened (Rafi 2022).

In Chapter 1, Waseem begins his story with the 1947 partition, including how it led to the superimposition of specific ethnic (Punjabi plus Muhajir) interests. But, as Waseem points out, Pakistan’s story of conflict will remain incomplete unless the role of the masses is taken into account. According to him, partition was a violent event, but it was the masses – especially, those who arrived in Punjab – who directly experienced the violence. Naturally, the masses – especially, the Punjabi middle class – became the custodians of the idea of Pakistan, defining what it meant. The masses, thus, became the custodians of what Waseem calls the “master narrative”.

Chapter 2 deals with the production and reproduction of this narrative, detailing its construction of the “Hindu demon” (p. 85) and creating a dichotomous worldview (p. 89) defined by a vision that sees the world conspiring against Pakistan (p. 90). It was this narrative that de-emphasised local regions/ethnic groups (p. 100), superimposed Urdu (p. 105), Islamised the polity, and spearheaded many forms of political conflict that continue to define Pakistan.

Waseem shows, in Chapter 3 (“Two Power Centres”), that the middle class in Pakistan – which is predominantly Punjabi (p. 171) – was able to dominate the production of this narrative owing to its strong social and political identification with the Pakistani military and civil bureaucracy (p. 159). Describing the latter two middle-class dominated institutions as “State elites” and pitting them against the country’s “political elite” (p. 149) represented by political parties and the parliament, Waseem develops a nuanced analysis of how political parties, often with the help of ‘state elites’, are able to maintain their presence. This class, according to Waseem, remains “remarkably resilient” (p. 209), and he shows this via a “longitudinal” analysis of election patterns (p. 211).

But, given the role of the establishment vis-à-vis political parties, can we actually draw a clear boundary between the two power centres Waseem describes? Waseem shows that boundaries are hard to draw, which is why he calls Pakistan, in Chapter 4, an “establishmentarian democracy”. The title reads like an oxymoron, but Waseem uses it to draw a comparison between Pakistan and other South Asian countries, such as India, with the same British colonial legacies. Here, he highlights some Pakistan-specific processes and transformations, especially “the militarisation” and the “judicialisation” of politics (P 218).

Specifically, Waseem reminds us that Pakistan’s hybrid polity has a judicial element wherein, like soldiers, judges seem to have a narrow ‘project-mindedness’, leading them to put their own task-oriented interpretation of the constitution over and above the constitution itself, the parliament, and the political class. The militarisation and judicialisation of politics became possible in Pakistan, as opposed to other post-colonial states, Waseem argues, because of a history in which “the mass mandate as a source of legitimacy” has been discounted (p. 276) – again, because the early “migrant” political class did not have established roots in the region. Waseem concludes that “the combined effect of the influence of the army and the judiciary has been negative for democracy” (p. 277).

It is for this reason, Waseem explains in Chapter 5 (“Constitutional Dynamics”), that “the potential for law to perform the function of conflict resolution has been constrained by various institutional, ideological and political developments that often served opposite ends” (p. 279). Accordingly, Waseem argues that “constitutionalism” in Pakistan has been the subject of a power struggle across three different areas: parliament, federalism, and Islamism (p. 280). Backed by a detailed historical account, Waseem narrates how this power struggle has reinforced various conflicts. For instance, turning to the struggle for Islamising the law and the constitution, it involves an ongoing conflict between “modernists and traditionalists that has remained inconclusive up to this day” (p. 324). On the one hand, this struggle reinforced a Punjabi-dominated establishmentarian democracy, but it also created what Waseem calls an “Islamic establishment” that can reproduce itself (p. 334).

It is this capacity that, in Chapter 6 (“Mass Public”), shapes a public sphere across three fields of public policy: civil society, education, and the media (p. 340). These three sub-fields have their own conflict dimensions. For instance, civil society has its own liberal and religious factions. There is an “Islamic civil society” (p. 350) that frequently clashes with the donor-funded civil society. This tension within the public sphere is one reason why civil society in Pakistan, according to Waseem, has not been able to “erode the legitimacy of a government”, which, as Waseem points out in previous chapters, is establishmentarian. In other words, the reason why Pakistan’s polity has not been able to fundamentally change its course away from the domination of the establishment is due to its fractured nature.

Civil Society’s democratic potential is further restricted by how the state has utilised the education system to gear the masses toward forms of “combative nationalism, religion and civilisation in general” (p. 360). Pakistan’s civil society, in this sense, generates what Gramsci would call ‘consent’ for the work of the state (Chandhoke 1995). Although Waseem does not explicitly draw from Gramsci, he still highlights how this ‘consent’ for dominant frames is often manufactured through the media.

Because Pakistan’s political discourse is controlled to keep the establishmentarian system intact, it leaves certain discourses and their producers out. This is the central theme of Chapter 7 (“The Outsider”). Here, the concept of ‘Outsider’ illuminates the conflict between those controlling powers (insiders) and those trying to capture a share in power e.g.., “ethnic and sub-ethnic as well as religious minorities” (p. 391), including the Baloch, Ahmadis, Shias, Zikris, Christians, and Hindus. But the categories of insiders and outsiders are fluid, as reflected in the Muhajir group’s position, which changed from being insiders after the partition of 1947 to being outsiders more recently. As in other chapters, Waseem explains the struggle between insiders and outsiders historically, with a lot of space devoted to the genesis of this struggle in the colonial era that continued, in various forms, later on.

Still, Waseem notes that the state has also tried to keep the “outsiders inside” (p. 423) by, for instance, creating Karachi as a city for those who were “left on the wrong side of the border” (p. 426). Later, the capital was ‘returned’ to Sindh to pacify Sindhi nationalists (Ibid). Indeed, the politics of keeping the outsiders inside was also evident in declaring Bengali as a national language (p. 428), in abolishing the One-Unit to accommodate provincial identities (p. 429), and in a shift away from the presidential system (p. 431) to create space, within a parliamentary system, for political outsiders. But despite these seemingly ‘inclusive’ steps, the state remains heavily invested in “keeping the outsiders at bay” (p. 440), especially the Baloch and the Ahmadis.

Tracing “roots of the mega conflict in Pakistan” (p. 452), Waseem concludes his book by illuminating Pakistan as “the prototype of a post-colonial state characterised by perpetual sources of instability” (p. 457). While Waseem does not draw detailed comparisons with other post-colonial states outside of South Asia, his book still shows both the genesis of political conflict in Pakistan and how it has evolved. He highlights the forces that played specific roles in its development and the ways in which political conflict itself produced even more conflict. Ultimately, Waseem concludes that, because “all politics is about conflict” (p. 457), understanding conflict as a transformative category (rather than a static state of affairs) can help to develop a nuanced understanding of the political field.

This book will be a highly valuable source for people interested in the politics of Pakistan and in the potential of political conflict as a truly transformative variable.

Akhtar, Aasim Sajjad. 2018. The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society, and Culture in Pakistan. Cambridge University Press.
Akhtar, Aasim Sajjad. 2002. The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons. Folio Books.
Jan, Ammar Ali. 2021. Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan. Folio Books.
Jafferlot, Christophe. 2015. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience. Random House Publishers.
McCarthy, Matthew and Zaidi, Akbar S. 2019. New Perspectives on Pakistan’s Political Economy: State, Class, and Social Change. Cambridge University Press.
Chandhoke, Neera. 1995. State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory. Sage Publications.
Siddiqi, Farhan Hanif. 2012. The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir ethnic movements. Routledge.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2001. ‘Social Capital, Civil Society and Development’. Third World Quarterly 22, No.1, 7-20.
Rafi Sheikh, Salman. 2022. Intra-Ethnic Fragmentation and the Politics of Ethnically Decentralising Constitutional Change in Pakistan: A Comparative Study. Ph.D. Dissertation, SOAS, University of London

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2024


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