Weak State, Strong Societies

Understanding Pakistan
A fundamental political fact about Pakistan is that the state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong. Anyone or any group with the slightest power in society uses it among other things to plunder the state for patronage and favours, and to turn to their advantage the workings of the law and the bureaucracy. Hence the astonishing fact that barely 1 per cent of the population pays income tax and the wealthiest landowners in the country pay no direct taxes at all. The weakness of the state goes far beyond a dependence on patronage for the survival of governments. To an extent most Westerners would find hard to grasp, the lack of state services means that much of the time, the state as such as an agent with its own independent will does not necessarily affect many people=s lives, either in terms of benefits or oppression. The presence of policemen, judges and officials may make it look as if the state is present, but much of the time these people are actually working and sometimes killing on their own account, or at the behest of whoever has the power, influence and money at a certain point, in a certain place.

The nineteenth-century British colonial official Sir Thomas Metcalfe described the traditional villages of northern India as ‘little republics’, administering their own justice, deciding their own affairs, and paying only what tribute to the >state= could be extracted from them by force. The independence has been very greatly reduced over the years, but compared to any Western society a good deal of it still exists in many areas, if not specifically in the village, then in local society generally. Society is strong above all in the form of kinship networks which are by far the most important foci of most people=s loyalty. It is suffice to say that the language of kinship even among people who are not in fact related permeates most of Pakistan as it does most of South Asia, where it is a matter of affection, responsibility, asking for favours or asking for protection. The most wonderful expression of this, which perfectly sums up India’s mixture of kinship, democracy and hierarchy, is the term with which you may wish to address a relatively menial person in northern India who happens to be in a position to help or harm you (like a bus conductor): Bhai-sahib, or ‘Brother Lord’.

Kinship is central to the weakness of the Pakistani state, but also to its stability, above all because of its relationship with class. Because the Pakistani political elites, especially in the countryside, rely for their strength not just on wealth but on their leadership of clans or kinship networks, kinship plays a vital part in maintaining the dominance of the feudal elites and many of the urban bosses.

By helping to enforce on the elites a certain degree of responsibility for their followers, and circulating patronage downwards, kinship also plays a role in softening to a limited extent class domination. Kinship is therefore partially responsible for Pakistan’s surprisingly low rating of social inequality according to the Gini co-efficient. In both ways, kinship is a critical anti-revolutionary force, whether the revolution is of a socialist or Islamic variety.

The importance of kinship is rooted in a sense (which runs along a spectrum from the very strong to very weak depending on circumstances and degree of kinship) of collective solidarity for interest and defense. This interest involves not just the pursuit of concrete advantage, but is also inextricably bound up with powerful feelings of collective honour and prestige (izzat) and shame; and, indeed, a kinship group which is seen as dishonoured will find its interests decline in every other way. A sense of collective honour among kin is thus reflected most dramatically in preventing or punishing any illicit sexual behaviour by the kinship group=s women, but also in working to advance the political and economic power and public status of the group.

This is a cultural system so strong that it can persuade a father to kill a much-loved daughter, not even for having an affair or becoming pregnant, but for marrying outside her kinship group without permission. You don=t get stronger than that. As Alison Shaw and others have noted, the immense strength and flexibility of the kinship system in Pakistan (and most of India too) are shown, among other things, by the way in which it has survived more than half a century o transplantation to the very different climes of Britain. Shaw writes:

Families in Oxford are therefore best seen as outposts of families in Pakistan whose members have been dispersed by labour migration . . . (In Britain) a distinctive pattern of living near close kin has emerged, echoing that of earlier migrations within the Indian subcontinent.

Defense of the honour and the interests of the kinship group usually outweighs the loyalty to a party, to the state, or to any code of professional ethics, not only for ordinary Pakistanis, but for most politicians and officials. It is important therefore to understand that much Pakistani corruption is the result not of lack of values (as it is seen usually in the West) but of the positive and ancient value of loyalty to family and clan. Since the kinship group is the most important force in society, the power of kinship is inevitably reflected in the political system. Just as in much of the rest of South Asia, a majority of Pakistan=s political parties are dynastic. The PPP is the party of the Bhutto family; the PML (N) is that of the Sharif family; and the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Frontier is the party of the Wali Khan family.

The local political groupings which are the building blocks of these parties are themselves based on local dynasties. Hence the phenomenon of a woman such as Benazir Bhutto rising to the top of the political system in an extremely conservative male-dominated society. This was power by inheritance and says not much more about ordinary women=s rights in modern Pakistani society than the inheritance of the throne by Queen Mary and Elizabeth from their father said about ordinary women=s rights in sixteenth-century English society.

The only institution which has succeeded to some extent in resisting this in the name of state loyalty and professional meritocracy is the army and you say that it has managed this in part only through turning itself into a kind of giant clan, serving its members= collective interests at the expense of the state and society, and underpinned to some extent by ancient local kinship groups among the north-western Punjabis and Pathans.

If the importance of kinship links has survived transplantation to the cities of Britain, it is not surprising that it has survived migration to the cities of Pakistan, especially because in both cases (the British through marriage with people from home villages in Pakistan) the urban populations are continually, being swelled and replenished by new migration from the countryside. The continued importance of kinship is a key reason why Pakistan=s tremendous rate of urbanization in recent years has not yet led to radical changes in political culture.

Largely because of the strength of kinship loyalty, Pakistani society is probably strong enough to prevent any attempt to change it radically through Islamist revolution, which is all to the good; but this is only the other face of something which is not so good, which is society=s ability to frustrate even the best-designed and best-intentioned attempts at reform and positive development. Key factors in this regard are the gentry in the countryside and the intertwined clans of business, political and criminal bosses in the towns, all of them maintaining continuity over the years through intermarriage, often within the extended family almost always (except among the highest elites) within the wider kinship group.

Marriage with members of the same kinship group, and when possible of the same extended family, is explicitly intended to maintain the strength, solidarity and reliability of these groups against dilution by outsiders. Shaw writes of the Pakistanis of Oxford that in the year 2000, almost fifty years after they first started arriving in Britain, there had been barely any increase in the proportion of marriages with non-kin, and that over the previous fifteen years 59% of marriages had been with first cousins; and the proportion in strongly Pakistani cities such as Bradford is even higher:

Greater wealth was perceived not solely in terms of individual social mobility, although it provides opportunities for this, but in terms of raising the status of a group of kin relation in their wider biradiri and neighbours in Pakistan . . . Status derives not only from wealth, mainly in terms of property and business, but also from respectability (primarily) expressed by an ashraf (noble) lifestyle. One element of being considered a man worthy of respect derives from having a reputation as being someone who honours his obligations to kin. Cousin marriage is one of the most important expressions of this obligation. The majority of east Oxford families have not achieved social mobility and status through massive accumulation of property and business. For them the marriage of their children to the children of siblings in Pakistan is an important symbol of honour and respectability, a public statement that even families separated by continents recognize their mutual obligations.

It is above all thanks to locally dominant kinship groups that over the years, beneath the froth and spray of Pakistan politics, the underlying currents of Pakistani political life have until recently been so remarkably stable. Civilian governments have come and gone with bewildering rapidity, whether overthrown by military coups or stranded by the constantly shifting allegiances of their political supporters. Yet the same people have gone on running these parties, and leading the same people or kinds of people at local level. The same has been true under military governments. None of these changes of government or regime has produced any real change to the deeper structures of Pakistani politics, because these are rooted in groups and allegiances which so far have changed with glacial slowness.

Pakistan by Anatol Lieven published by Public Affairs in 2011, New York, NY.

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