Pakistan: Beyond the Sound Bites

D. Raghunandan: [Media reports of] Pakistan tend to be overdetermined, or overwhelmed, by the issues of terrorism and extremism.  Professor Aijaz Ahmad . . . recently spent some time in Pakistan, and we thought this offers a good opportunity to look at other aspects of life in Pakistan.  Aijaz, what do you think Indians and others are missing out in the news and information we usually get about Pakistan?

Aijaz Ahmad: As you were saying, Indian and other media have always focused on the issues of jihadism and terrorism, and that, to a certain extent, makes sense because that’s what India and the United States are most concerned about.  What gets lost there is an immense turmoil that is going on in that country and also issues which indirectly may be connected with this rise of extremism in large parts of Pakistan.  When I was in Pakistan, the day after I arrived there, the day when the American consulate in Peshawar sustained a blast, what I found very striking was that, in the entire sort of middle-class milieu, university milieu, where I was moving on that day and the day after, no one was talking about it.  I had to bring it up.  What they were talking about was the Eighteenth Amendment, which was about to be passed by the National Assembly.  When you are in Pakistan, you find that the preoccupation is entirely of a different kind.  There was a great deal of conversation about water issues — sometime in relation to India, but very little — mostly that Punjabi agriculture is devastated now in Pakistan because of lack of water, lack of power . . . this, that, and the others.  You have that.  You have an impression that in the larger cities, the biggest cities like Lahore and Karachi, there is now a much more vibrant middle class than there used to be in Pakistan in the past as I knew it.  And yet you also have the sense that these are national enclaves, and the real badlands of jihadism are somewhere else.  Pakistan, in the food security index, has now been given the lowest, most alarming rating.  People are talking widely of the possibility of famine: what the causes of that are, what the regions are that will be affected.  And the regions are, for example, in southern Punjab, which is also a hotbed of Punjabi extremism.  So, this whole complexity of what is going on in that society is very contradictory trends.

D. Raghunandan: Let’s turn to what you just referred to: the Eighteenth Amendment.  Do you see liberal civil society getting strengthened?  Or can the Eighteenth Amendment also to some extent help strengthen fundamentalist forces because of the greater leeway given to the expression of popular sentiment?

Aijaz Ahmad: The heart of it is the shift of power from the president to the parliament.  Now, what does that mean?  Does that mean people?  Well, the prime minister of Pakistan, the president of Pakistan, and the foreign minister of Pakistan come from three of the most eminent feudal families of Pakistan.  Democratization in Pakistan in terms of political democratization does not necessarily lead to greater social democratization because it is a stranglehold of feudal power on civil institutions in Pakistan.  So, when the power shifts like that, it becomes a renegotiation of the compact between military power and civil feudal power.  There is that.  But, of course, there is greater leeway for democratic forces to play.  The other thing very important that is happening in Pakistan — which I think is the important factor, the most important constitutional reform. . .  — is the realignment of relations between the center and the federal units and provinces and among the provinces.  The Concurrent List has been abolished.  There is now a mandate that the Council for Common Interests, as it is called, which is comprised of the representatives of the four provinces, has to meet every ninety days and reconcile differences.  That combines with the dispensation, the new dispensation, given by the Finance Commission, which gives a much better deal to Baluchistan and what is now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that is to say North-West Frontier Province — a much better deal for them.  There is now developing in Pakistan again there might be a constitutional amendment on it.  Renegotiation of relations, mechanisms of negotiations, mechanisms of distribution of power, redistribution of water between the NWFP, which is the heart of hydroelectric production in Pakistan, and Sindh, which is at the tail end of the rivers, and so on — so, these kinds of things, redistribution of power among the federating units — it’s not altogether, you know, wonderful because what is beginning to happen and is likely to happen is that there will be very powerful movements for further divisions of the existing provinces.

D. Raghunandan: And greater autonomy for the provinces?

Aijaz Ahmad: Yes, but also, you know, carving out.  There are very violent demonstrations, etc. going on in which lots of people are killed by the security forces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Hindko and Hazaras want a separate state of their own because they feel oppressed by the Pakhtuns.  And there is a very big movement, has been incipient a very big movement, in Pakistan for the creation of a Seraiki province, carving up, carved out of, three of the provinces.  The moment you start talking about nationality questions . . .

D. Raghunandan: You open up a Pandora’s box.

Aijaz Ahmad: Yeah, and this is already beginning to happen.  Already in Karachi the MQM is talking about it.  These are not going to succeed tomorrow, but what form they will take over the coming years we don’t know.

D. Raghunandan: Let me turn to another aspect, which is we all know that Pakistan is benefitting substantially from massive US aid, both civilian and military, but it’s also struggling to cope with the belt-tightening measures imposed by the IMF, by the United States, by other international lenders, and this is having all kinds of effects in society at large.  So, how did you see this affecting the lives of the ordinary Pakistanis?

Aijaz Ahmad: From 2001 until now, the Pakistani armed forces have received 9-10 billion dollars.  The effect of that for the armed forces, which essentially means the officer corps and so on, on their wealth and prosperity is very, very evident.  Since the Kerry-Lugar Amendment, Pakistan is supposed to get 7.5 billion dollars over the next five years.  I see no impact of that in Pakistan so far.  They might start by spending more money in places like Waziristan and so on.  How that money is going to be spent is very unclear, and I’m sure 50-70% of it will go to the pockets of those who administer it.

D. Raghunandan: One reads frequently about the rise in food prices in Pakistan, the rise of power tariffs, which have been liberalized and deregulated, and several other such developments taken mostly at the behest of the IMF or international lenders, which are tending to push up prices in an already fairly impoverished economy, except for some sections as you said.  Did you see much effect of that in Pakistan?

Aijaz Ahmad: Well, I had several discussions on the question of price rise.  Having gone from Delhi, having see the price rise in Delhi for the last year or so, it did not strike me that the prices are rising in Lahore any faster than they are rising in Delhi.

D. Raghunandan: What do you see the trajectory in Pakistan unfolding over the next 5-10 years?

Aijaz Ahmad: Well, my sense is that the new matters that are coming, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Waziristan, will determine a great deal as to what happens to the jihadi, extremist stuff in Pakistan.  I think it’s a phenomenon that has come to stay in Pakistan and it will not go away soon.  My sense is that the military will not directly intervene in Pakistani politics in the near future.  So, there is going to be greater play for these other forces.  I think Pakistan in short is a very, very conflicted society in which very contradictory trends are colliding: very modernizing middle classes in the cities versus all of these jihadis all around them.  It’s a highly conflictual society.  It’s not a peaceful, quiescent, semi-sleeping society.

Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist critic.  This video was produced by NewsClick on 22 May 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.