Socialist Worker

The long struggle for justice in Pakistan

Geoff Brown outlines some of the key fault lines in the state that emerged in 1947 from the wreckage of British rule in India, and their impact today

Issue No. 2052

The current political turmoil in Pakistan has its roots in the way the Pakistani state was constructed, and tensions that have been present since its birth.

Pakistan is one of the world’s poorest and most unequal countries. It is also one of the most unstable.

The present crisis is only the latest in a series that go back to its origins in the partition of India by the British in 1947.

Pakistan stands 144th out of 175 countries in the United Nation’s human development index. At least a quarter of the population, 40 million people, live in absolute poverty.

The earthquake in 2005 showed how vulnerable most people are to any kind of shock.

With the dictator General Musharraf’s grip on power weakening, the end of Pakistan’s fourth military dictatorship, which has been in place since a coup in 1999, appears in sight.

The military, a vast bureaucracy taking a huge share of the state’s resources, has ruled Pakistan directly for over half of its 60 years’ existence.

None of the country’s five civilian governments have been able to complete their term of office, and all state institutions are notorious for corruption. The poor, especially women, suffer most.

Since its creation Pakistan has been in conflict with India. War over Kashmir started within weeks of independence, and since then it has fought and lost three further wars with India.

The last of these, in 1971, led to a civil war, over a million deaths and Pakistan breaking in two as the eastern half of the country won its independence and became Bangladesh.

Despite a so-called peace process, relations between India and Pakistan remain extremely bad and both are nuclear powers.

The British, who had deliberately fanned the flames of Hindu-Muslim rivalry to divide and rule India, created Pakistan.

The demand for a “Muslim state” came mainly from landowners and the middle classes, who saw an opportunity to create a country that they could control. The bloody consequences were ethnic cleansing, a million deaths and 14 million refugees.

There were divisions in the new state from its very inception. It was made up of at least six distinct linguistic groups – Bengalis, Punjabis, Baluchis, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Urdu speakers.

Urdu became the official language of the state even though it was the mother tongue of less than one in ten of the population.

Second class

From the beginning, any attempt by Pashtuns or Baluchis to campaign for their own states was forcibly repressed and Sindhis found themselves second class citizens even in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.

Starting with a tiny share of India’s industry in 1947, Pakistan’s economy grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, producing a new and increasingly combative working class.

A movement against the military dictator Ayub Khan took off in the late 1960s. A growing number of strikes led to a landslide election victory for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The PPP won with the slogan “roti, kapra aur makhan”, “bread, clothing and shelter.”

Unable to deliver on these promises in the economic crisis of the 1970s, Bhutto steadily lost popularity.

Having defeated the strike movement and crushed opposition from the left, he turned to religious forces to strengthen his position, leaving himself open to a military coup led by an Islamist general, Zia ul Haq.

Zia’s regime in the 1980s was followed by four ever-more corrupt and short-lived civilian governments in the 1990s. Their only achievement was to introduce neoliberal reforms at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan’s Western allies condemned the 1999 coup, only to reverse their position after 9/11. Since then Pakistan has, against the wishes of most of its population, been a key ally in the “war on terror”.

As a result the socially extremely conservative Islamist parties have been able to dress themselves up as anti-imperialist.

As the present crisis deepens, the mainstream political parties are bargaining for a power sharing agreement with Musharraf.

Though the general would be reluctant to “take off his uniform” and return some power to parliament, the alternative of being removed by a mass movement may well force his hand.

Violence is part of the system

One important boost to Zia ul Haq’s regime in the 1980s was the vast amount of money channelled by the US through Pakistan’s secret services to the mujahedin fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

The US abandoned the mujahedin after the Russians withdrew in 1989, causing bitterness among those who had seen the US as an ally. For the first time the Islamist parties began to gain ground.

The Afghan war led to huge numbers of refugees flooding into the cities of Pakistan. This sharpened existing ethnic conflicts.

In Karachi, the MQM, a party representing the Mohajirs whose privileged share of government jobs was under threat, escalated the violence.

A “Kalashnikov culture” emerged as armed gangs, using cheap and freely available weapons, divided the city into areas controlled by rival parties.

As was pointed out in Socialist Worker last week, it was the MQM that were behind much of the violence against anti-Musharraf protesters in Karachi.

Yet the ethnic conflicts have not been able to stop working class resistance. There have been ongoing battles over union organisation, pay and, above all, against privatisation.

Geoff Brown’s article from 2006 Pakistan on the edge of instability from International Socialism journal is available online at

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Tue 22 May 2007, 18:46 BST
Issue No. 2052
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