The Perpetual Conflict between Centre and Periphery: Pakistan’s separatist tendencies in light of pre-partition politics

By ignoring the contours of Muslim political evolution itself in United India, Pakistan’s state narrative has conveniently elevated the status of political leaders to saviors of Islam. The immediate difficulties faced by the Muslim political parties, Muslim League’s leadership and the intricacies involved in formulating the demand for Pakistan are vital in understanding not only the past but also addressing our political problems today. The assumption that Muslims of the subcontinent always were a separate political category (as they were a religious and social category) demanding the right to an independent homeland on one platform has been part of state policy.

Partition of the subcontinent through the realist prism exposes the lack of communal sentiment in the communal politics that took off in the decades leading to partition. Jinnah’s secular mindset stands in contrast to the religious undertones that Pakistan has adopted as a state. Was Jinnah, as historical discourse in Pakistani textbooks suggests, fighting Jihad against the Hindus and the British Raj? And if not then must we pit everything political and apolitical against Islam or have we polluted the religious with the political and the social to a point of no return, to the point that all actions, decisions, and justifications pertaining to the public realm must also conform to specifically constructed Islamic ideals?
With his eyes on the centre, Jinnah realized in the 1937 elections that certain steps taken to increase the Muslim League’s share of the pie in fact proved self destructive. These include the exaggeration of minority representation and separate electorate. Initially perceived as milestones for Muslim political journey, once exposed to the nature of politics in Muslim majority provinces, Jinnah was immersed in a labyrinth of diverging interests.

It was the negation of his initial understanding of a Muslim political dynamic.  That led him to the delicate balance of interests, strong enough to amass just sufficient support to create a separate state, yet too weak to keep this state intact for the next two decades. Jinnah’s political journey allows room for forming a better understanding of ‘identity’ as a universal phenomenon. It brushes aside doubt and ushers in obscurity.

The first bone of contention, as Ayesha Jalal mentions in her book ‘The Sole Spokesman’, was the conflict of interests between the Muslims of minority provinces and those of Muslim majority provinces. The All India Muslim League, formed in 1906, a group of elite Muslims belonging to Muslim minority provinces, wanted to safeguard their rights as small disparate islands in a predominantly Hindu ocean. The first milestone achieved by the Muslim League was that of separate electorates for Muslims in an All India dimension under the Morley Minto pact in 1909.

The separate electorate however came with its baggage, reflective of the short sightedness of the Muslims as minorities whose eyes were on the centre of a United India. Firstly, at the expense of the status of a separate political category it turned the Muslims of India (even in Bengal and the North West) into a perpetual minority. Secondly, behind the protective walls of separate electorate, there was no real incentive to organize their political parties. The more destructive facet of separate electorate surfaced in the 1937 elections.  Muslim politicians felt so secure behind the barriers built by the Muslim League that they felt no real incentive to organize or join political parties as a means to secure their constituencies. On the other hand non-Muslim candidates faced fierce competition. Staying outside the formal political loop was not seen as an option and most chose to affiliate themselves with the Congress in an attempt to tighten their hold over local constituency. Unlike the Muslim ‘protected political ambiance’, the non-Muslim politician’s local influence proved insufficient in a rapidly budding, competitive system.

Another barrier in Jinnah’s journey was his refusal to support religious and populist sentiment of the masses. One such cause was that of the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. From 1917 to 1922 the Khilafat Movement, in opposition to the Treatment of Turkey by the Allies, began as an attempt to restore the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War One. Gandhi stepped in at this point securing the support of Religious Umma and a wide array of Muslims by boycotting British goods, and not only supporting but actively leading and participating. Jinnah on the contrary was a tactician, not a man who would support non-cooperation that leads to complete chaos, as he believed was Gandhi’s forte. However Jinnah’s relatively suave, subtle and tactical approach, as opposed to the Mahatma’s knack with pathos, proved ineffective. An analysis of the Muslim League’s relation with the Muslim majority provinces, and resorting to a need for securing ‘Islamic’ identity and the rights of Muslims in a state for Islam, means that Jinnah had to eventually give in to what sells: Emotions, not logic. It is perhaps futile to argue that Gandhi was exploiting the religious sentiment of the Muslim masses, that given the aftermath of the failed, chaotic Khilafat movement, and his abrupt withdrawal from the non-cooperation movement when hundreds of thousands of poor Muslims had left their belongings back to migrate out of Dar-ul-Harb. The Khilafat Movement was bound to fail as far as restoring the Khilafat is concerned, but as far as the subcontinent is concerned; its failure must be measured in terms of the social and political damage it did to the Indian Muslim Community.

It was in the late 1920s after a few years of political hibernation Jinnah realized that under Montague Chelmsford Reform (1919), where the government had secured the ministries in their hands, separate electorate and more representation in the centre was meaningless if on the provincial level the Muslims were to remain a minority, even if a separate political category. All of a sudden, in 1928, Jinnah was willing to forego the once ‘milestone’ for Muslim politics: separate electorate, in return for acceptance of other Muslim demands by the Congress. This sacrifice however was not accepted by Muslim Majority provinces, (like Punjab) who wanted to retain separate electorate, but remove exaggerated minority quotas (which reduced them to a minority in a majority province).

Throughout pre-partition Muslim politics in India we therefore see a tussle and a conflict of interests between the centre and the peripheries. The centre has tried time and again to brush aside ethnic peculiarities between the various parts that were to combine to form ‘Pakistan’ and the provinces have felt this new forced communal identity was irrelevant and, more importantly, would serve to crush them. Today, Pakistan’s state narrative has varied little. While more dominant provinces like Punjab, who enjoyed a major chunk owing to their pre partition development and fast evolution of private and public sectors, most ethnic elements have time and again revolted against the federal government. The federal government, instead of embracing a multi ethnic, multi cultural society, felt the existence of subcultures threatens the Islamic identity that the nation justifies its existence over. Hence, the state and ethnicities seem to get caught in a vicious cycle, a zero sum game, where one’s success defines the other’s failure.

Pakistan history of separatist tendencies and the narrative of victimhood of a colonial mindset however need to be questioned. After 1971, the cessation of Bengal, it seems that the centre and Punjab (which has over the decades dominated the economy, army, and civil service areas for the most part) must assume a perpetually apologetic position. True, the centre’s paranoia and constant need to hold on to the different ‘components’ has a major role to play, but this history of tyranny that we have been labeled with has given troublesome elements an excuse to revolt.

The Baloch National Movement, Siraiki Suba, Pakhtunistan narratives have all been compared to 1971. While exploitation at the hands of the political and economic elite of these ethnicities respectively remains inevitable, the centre’s inability to maintain some minimal level of discipline and ‘state presence’ without offending the needs of ethnic survival cannot be justified. The centre and the peripheries therefore both play a role in the continual survival of separatist rhetoric.

The Baloch Liberation Movement has aligned itself along lines of economic deprivation, underrepresentation in civil and military services, and a general sense of marginalization. Pakistan’s political and military establishment argue that Baloch backwardness was not a result of biased policies, rather Balochistan inherited had lower literacy rates, per capita income and meager infrastructure compared to other provinces of British India. Why has Balochistan remained in the waiting room of history however needs to be questioned. According to the centre Baloch leaders, especially after the discovery of mineral deposits are trying to secure a bigger share of the pie, as is the center. The problems of Balochistan range from people going missing, tortured bodies being discovered in streets and the anger this creates to the prevailing sense of rage which in turn leads to targeted killings, kidnappings and acts of vengeance against a state which the Baloch people widely believe has treated them unfairly. Although the Supreme Court has stepped in to recover missing persons, who ultimately should assume blame for the situation escalating to this point? Army emphasizes on the role of international agencies and the duplicity of Baloch leadership, creating hurdles towards developmental schemes. However the blame lies with weak governance. A province remaining in a perpetual state of anarchy, despite an elected provincial government in office, goes down to show serious dyfunctionality on both ends.

The Siraiki Movement neither has the same momentum, or history of suffering and violence as the Baloch Movement. However, the Siraiki people feel marginalized by being grouped with the already dominant Punjabis, and hence the demand for a new province where they face less competition and fewer injustices. This perceived sense of injustice, is similar to what is felt by the Sindhi people, who feel sidelined by the migrant communities (Urdu speaking, Punjabis and Pashtuns) in Karachi. As the economic and industrial hub of the entire province, Karachi provides maximum opportunities for education, growth, and economic progress. The indigenous population of the province feels that not only have they been discriminated against in the past, when outsiders who were more educated were preferred over them, but that over time the gap between the local and the migrant communities has increased and any development in the province will also be designed to benefit the outsiders more. Separatist claims are aimed at protecting against further economic deterioration.

What has led these communities to remain ‘closed’ and still speak of political rights, development, education and representation in terms of ethnicity is the biggest challenge that Pakistan faces. When most Pakistanis feel suppressed and underrepresented under a tyrannical center, how can Pakistan move beyond the point of ethnic conflict? Partially the blame lies with the centers desperation to erase any differences and diversity by flooding curriculum and newspapers with ‘state’ ideology without being remotely receptive of the people of its state. Secondly, Pakistan has inherited a flimsy political skeleton. By protecting the ‘Muslim’ politicians from competition party politics did not trickle down to the grass root level. The landlords remain in power, whose power is threatened by external influence of any nature, be it education even.

Solutions to Pakistan’s political backwardness need to be debated. Economic reform is a necessity, but before that perhaps we need leaders whose positions of power are not threatened by progress.

By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Research Analyst
Spearhead Research