Amidst the banal and mind-numbing spread of op-ed pages across the country, Aakar Patel’s recent piece on the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan (Express Tribune: Of Punjab’s partition, castes & martial races) was a refreshing departure from convention. Here’s what Mr. Patel had to say about the issue:
“My hypothesis is that the division of the Punjabi nation in 1947 produced a Pakistani Punjab that was heavily weighted in favour of the martial castes. The trading castes, which tend to be more pragmatic and balance society’s extremism mostly left to come to India. This has produced the imbalance which explains Pakistan’s fondness for a state dominated by soldiers. Gen Pervez Kayani runs the state’s foreign policy, security policy and most of its economic policy because the majority of Punjabis are comfortable with the idea of a warrior being in charge.”
Let’s get one thing straight though: this particular line of thinking, i.e. the association of caste with institutional ordering, isn’t new. In fact, it’s been present in the Indian subcontinent since at least the middle of the 19th century.
As the story goes, in the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny the Empire wanted to re-structure the British Indian Army in a bid to expunge the treacherous Bengalis, and accommodate more loyal segments of society, i.e. the Punjabis. The premise for this ethnic revision, however, was less arbitrary than it sounds, and was actually based on anthropological work done by civil servants of the Raj. Volume upon volume, detailing every characteristic of how major and minor ethnic groups went about their daily lives, what they ate, how they spent their money, what were they good at, and what were their failings. These observations, put together in the shape of district gazetteers, pamphlets, and, in some cases, full book-length publications, ultimately led to the conclusion that some Punjabi tribes, i.e. the martial races (Janjuas, Awans, Ghakars etc), were best suited for military service.
This is precisely where Aakar Patel’s hypothesis overlaps with historical reality: The British, in their quest for passive consent from the Indians, skewed recruitment patterns to such an extent that 67% of all recruitment was happening in the hill-tracts of what is now Pakistani Punjab. As a stand-alone fact, this particular contingency makes Patel’s theory very believable. Punjab has a militaristic culture, it is the largest province in the country, it has, over time, achieved pre-eminence in the affairs of the state, and hence it organically supports the one institution that it both helps form, and sustain: the army.
All well and good on paper, but unfortunately, this theory falls flat in the face of everything else that’s happened in our 150 year long history. If Patel’s thesis were used to construct a counter-factual, it would have resulted in a number of things:
1) The army would’ve been popular and powerful from the day of independence.
This, as is well recorded, is not true. For starters, Pakistan had terrible military infrastructure in the first decade of independence, and a process of hardware accumulation became possible only after the CEATO-SENTO deals were negotiated with the US by a civilian government.
2) The two-nation theory, based on warrior-like posturing towards India, was a product of the Punjabi imagination.
False. While the two-nation theory is imbibed and perpetuated by a large segment of the society in North and Central Punjab, it was actually championed by the Muhajir bureaucracy in the first 25 years of independence. Ghulam Muhammad, an Aligarh educated accountant, and the first finance minister of Pakistan, gave a speech on the floor of the constituent assembly extolling the virtues of a powerful army, of diverting budgetary resources towards arms accumulation, and of being prepared to mount a credible defense (and where applicable, effective attack) in the face of an ever-looming Indian threat.
3) The pre-eminence of Punjabi caste-based militarism limited and, ultimately maligned, capitalistic growth in post-partition Punjab
Also not true. Patel, later on in the piece, cites the case of trading castes in Karachi and Indian Punjab as counter-balancing forces that keep militarism in check. This particular reading of reality completely ignores, well, reality. Pakistani Punjab, despite the large-scale flight of non-Muslim capital in 1947, now sees urbanization at nearly 35 percent, and a provincial GDP that has a greater contribution from trade, retail, transport, and manufacturing than agriculture. The Punjabi trading and artisan castes, Arain, Kashmiri, Sheikhs, Perachas, Lohars etc, not only dominate provincial politics (through parties like the PMLN), they’re also quite keen on having good relations with India.
The basic premise of Aakar Patel’s piece is correct. The military is quite popular in Punjab, and in urban Pakistan as a whole, and its role in politics is not looked upon as an indiscretion. But his explanation is essentialist, and quite flawed. The real reasons for the army’s popularity are in the historical imbalances created by the ideology of a seceding state, by the exigencies of an aloof, migrant bureaucracy, by the machinations of global powers, by the self-serving accumulation of the armed foces themselves, and most importantly, the 64 year long project of villyfying mass-politics, political parties, and politicians. A project in which, to this day, media, and segments of the elite continue to be willing partners.
Originally published in Pakistan Today on 23/01/2012