Jan 13, 2010

Changing Pashtun society

Sartaj Khan

Changes in the Pashtun society can be attributed to a number of factors that are both internal and external. The Afghan wars altered the traditional Pashtun society to a great extent. Historically, the development of productive forces in South Asia is considered a uniform process. However, Hamza Alavi and others challenge this notion. Hamza Alavi pointed out in his research on Punjab that the caste system in the Doaba region of the Ganges was different from the Baradari system of Punjab (Indus Valley) and was closely related to the surplus produced. In case of Punjab it was low while in the Doaba region it was higher.

The same approach can be applied to the Pashtun society too: areas with low or no cultivation, unavailability of water and less fertility due to geographical reasons produced no or very low surplus, and were dominated by a tribal system with chieftains and Maliks on the top. In contrast to this were the fertile valleys and plains, where water was available for irrigation, producing a huge surplus, dominated by the class system with the 'Khanates-landed-class' at the apex of society. Of course, there are a few exceptions where both systems exist side by side. However, there is always an established system of power in society: Maliks and chieftains in the tribal areas, and Khans in the settled areas. Historically, this hegemonic system has been challenged from below whenever an opportunity arises. Moreover, this power system is prone to changes in case of foreign invasions.

As the British Crown replaced the East India Company in the subcontinent after the 1857 mutiny, the Raj introduced a system in the 'settled districts' and FATA which is now crumbling under its own weight and is exposed to changes. The legacy of the Raj still haunts the people of FATA. Even today this legacy is hailed on its official website: "FATA, both historically and traditionally, had a unique administrative and political status from the British times since 1849." Article 247 of the constitution provides it with a status altogether different from the rest of Pakistan. Legislation by parliament cannot be applied in FATA. The areas are administrated dictatorially in the name of the NWFP governor. No guarantee of human rights is provided either. Article 25 of the constitution declares that all citizens of Pakistan are equal before the law. But this is not applicable to the people of FATA. Traditionally Maliks were entitled to 'elect' members for the National Assembly.

In the 1973 constitution, about 37,000 Maliks were entitled to vote. In 1996, allegations of corruption and bribery, and widespread violations of human rights, combined with a long-standing demand from the emerging commercial and middle classes, forced the Pakistan government to extend adult franchise to the tribal belt. But political rights were not accompanied by development and economic stability. Despite many limitations, it was the first major blow to the political hegemony of the decaying hereditary institution of Maliks and chieftains.

The migration since the 1960s and the Afghan war of the 1980s resulted in great changes and implications for the Pashtun society. It culminated in the emergence of new forces on the Pahstun soil. The absence of employment opportunities forced the male population of NWFP and FATA to migrate first to industrial and commercial centres, such as Karachi, and then abroad.

The Afghan war gave rise to smuggling and the culture of weapons and drugs. Similarly the role played by the timber mafia, real-estate barons, land-grabbers, transporters, contractors, certain sections of the armed forces and bureaucracy, traders, and government agents, including councillors and nazims of the military regimes, in changing the dynamics of the Pashtun society cannot be ignored. Their wealth and power have come from sources other than land.

Meanwhile the US-led coalition's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq outraged the common Pashtun. The increasing resistance from the Iraqis and the Afghans to the invaders, coupled with the first-ever defeat of Israel in Lebanon, accompanied by movements of the national and the petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and civil society and professional classes against the military dictatorship on the other, give a message to the people that the hegemonic role of the state and society can be challenged from below.

However, the movements of the middle classes (the MMA and civil society) in one way or another have disappointed, if not betrayed, the rural poor. Increasingly and hastily, they give way to a more militant leadership that is able to counter the state and society dominated by Khans and Milks at the same time.

Dexter Filkins of the New York Times has said that the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is at the expense of Maliks in FATA. He asserted that first the Taliban marginalised and then killed the Maliks systematically, and in the process 'destroyed the old order.' More than 250 Maliks have been killed by militants since 2005 and even more had to flee to Peshawar and Islamabad to save their skin. But it is important, as noted by Filkins, that "the Taliban have not achieved this by violence alone. They have capitalised on the resentment many Pakistanis feel towards the hereditary Maliks and the government they represent". The New York Times pointed out in a report on the settled areas of NWFP that "the Taliban exploit class rifts in Pakistan".

The old socio-economic system introduced by the Raj and maintained by the Pakistani authorities did work for decades. But it is now too weak to control the downtrodden of society. As the Khans, Maliks and authorities were alienated and they lost hold over society previously controlled by them successfully, the armed forces had to intervene on the pretext of 'restoring peace and protecting law'.

Therefore, the movement of the conservative forces is contributing to accelerate the deteriorating process of a centuries-old order based on exploitation and oppression. But as a movement of the petty bourgeoisie it has a natural inclination to terrorism accompanied by destruction and brutality. To prevent the collapse of the old order, the authorities are collaborating with the Khans and Maliks to form 'lashkars' to counter the movement waged by the rural poor under the guise of Islamism and led by the so-called Taliban. The most significant feature of the lashkars is that these are backed by Khans and Maliks regardless of their political affiliations.

The old order was superfluous even before the American invasion of Afghanistan. But it was perpetuated by the authorities. In spite of small struggles here and there, there was no organised challenged to the old order after the great peasants' uprising in the late 1960s under the Maoist leadership. The process of history is not waiting for 'the progressive forces' to accomplish the task. This time around it seems that the democratic bourgeoisie, enlightened and conscious middle-class intelligentsia and the oppressive proletariat are unable to play their historical roles. There is much confusion on the part of the liberal-left intelligentsia on the nature of this war and the US invasion of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding their militant activities against the ruling elites, the Taliban do not represent progress in any way. It should be noted that neither Khans and Maliks nor the Taliban are progressives. This dilemma is aptly summarised in the words of an Afghan as he said to Robert Fisk: "Nobody supports the Taliban, but people hate the government".

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