Saturday, 12 January 2008

Cracking Up?

After the assasination of Bhutto, I argued that while the country was heading for [even more] political instability, it was not in danger of breaking up. I did add the following comment though:

"This is not to say that our political leaders might not still manage to drag the entire nation into chaos - its possible I suppose, given the state of affairs and the seemingly miraculous ability of our political leaders to really make a mess of things. However, that will require some effort and a whole series of mis-steps."

Well it certainly seems as if the first of those mis-steps have now been duly taken by our erstwhile leaders. How? By playing the ethnicity card.

The prime culprits are the PML-Q. Perhaps realizing that their opponents in the PPP are pretty much going to sweep rural Sindh, they seem to have decided to jettison any hope of winning there and have resorted to whipping up hatred against Sindhis in order to bolster their hopes in other parts of the country. The Chaudhries and their party have, among other things, accused Sindhis of being responsible for all the violence following Benazir's death, have alleged that all the victims of the violence were Punjabis, Mohajirs and other ethnic groups, have alleged that ethnic cleansing was carried out by Sindhis during the violence and have called for government financial assistance for those who lost property in the violence to only be paid to non-Sindhis.
With great hoopla, the PML-Q set up a 'refugee camp' in Lahore to house Punjabi refugees supposedly ethnically-cleansed from Sindh.

During the violence several trains were stopped on the tracks and burnt after rioters forced their passengers to disembark. Railway signals were also destroyed. This brought the country's railroads to a halt, with thousands of passengers stranded at small stations in the interior of Sindh without food or shelter for several days. Since the violence occurred only a few days after Eid, the trains had been packed with people returning from holidays with their families to their places of work - a large number were people from homes in the Punjab and NWFP returning to Karachi. The PML-Q has also given this disruption an ethnic flavour, presenting it as violence against Punjabis. The image of trains under attack particularly resonates because it was one of the features of the violence of Partition - violence that was especially severe in the Punjab and memories of which still linger in the national consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, there were sensationalized reports of the rape of Punjabi women by Sindhis - as always the spectacle of the 'others' threatening 'our' womenfolk is always a guaranteed crowd-puller in a society dominated by notions of machismo and honour. Given the problems the PML-Q is having pulling in crowds for their election rallies, its not surprising they have turned to these kinds of tactics to counter the so-called 'sympathy wave' that is expected to benefit the PPP following Bhutto's death.

The ethnicity card has been heavily criticized by human rights activists, members of the PPP and the PML-Q's coalition partner, the MQM. Even the Punjabi Students Association of Sindh has condemned the irresponsibility of the PML-Q.

Needless to say, the government is silent on the issue.

Having said all this, one should keep in mind that the rhetoric of ethno-nationalism is not new, and certainly not the sole purview of the PML-Q. The Baluch insurgency has long been fueled by talk of Punjabi domination. It was once a mainstay of shrill MQM rhetoric, [though these days it tends to be muttered under breath rather than announced in election speeches] and many Sindhi politicians complain about a Mohajir-Punjabi nexus that dominates the government and economy. Benazir Bhutto herself stirred the pot a couple of days before she returned to Pakistan in October by making a very inflamatory statement at a press conference in Dubai about how after a coup the military hanged her father, a Prime Minister from Sindh, but allowed Nawaz Sharif, a Prime Minister from Punjab, to live in luxurious exile. [Which of course begs the question, did she think Nawaz Sharif should have been killed as well, just to make things fair?]

It has been a long time since one has heard the level of hate-speech and calumny that one is now hearing in the country. One can only hope that better sense prevails and that the various political figures stop digging their fingernails into the cracks that are appearing in the Federation. But its not just the rhetoric that has to change. To a large extent, these trends are the reflection of a national political process that is severely damaged and a strong sense of alienation from the state which is felt by large sections of the populace. People who can sense that the state does not operate in their interests are more open to the suggestion that it operates in the interests of people of another ethnicity.

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