Pakistan: Social Structure and Organization

Pakistani society is marked by vast disparities of wealth and access to basic goods and services, such as health, education and sanitation. These remain limited in an environment in which just 1% of the population is directly taxed. Western donors in the wake of the 2010 floods have urged that Pakistan address this issue and mobilize more of its own resources. Much of the funding for social welfare programmes is at present dependent on international aid. To provide just one example, US AID provides around $45 million for family planning programmes which have been chronically underfunded from government sources. The political power of big landowners continues to block the introduction of an agricultural income tax and thereby improve Pakistan’s woeful tax to GDP ratio of 9%. In a country of some 190 million people, there are only 2.7 million registered tax payers. Significantly, agriculture, which accounts for nearly a quarter of Pakistan’s GDP, provides only 1% of its tax revenues. Its favouring is to the detriment of industry, which has a tax share three times its contribution to GDP.

The failure to bring the wealthy into the tax net has undermined the consolidation of democracy and is a factor in encouraging the notion that Islamization would bring greater social justice in its wake. State-sponsored Islamization in the 1980s concentrated, however, on the punitive aspects of Islamic law rather than on the encouragement of egalitarianism. Periods of rapid economic growth in the 1980s and in the early years of the twenty-first century have seen some trickle down effects, with a concomitant rise in life expectancy and lifting of sections of the population out of poverty. Nonetheless, grinding poverty affects rural populations in Sindh and Balochistan.

Estimates of the incidence of poverty in Pakistan are difficult not only because of faulty survey design, but inaccuracies in the raw official data. The World Bank estimated that 28.3% of the population were living below the poverty line in 2004-5. This global figure masks trends across the provinces and between urban and rural settings. The Social Policy Development Centre produced the breakdown for 2001-2 shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Poverty incidence by province (%)

province overall/rural/provincial capital/large cities/small cities and towns

Punjab: 26/24/18/22/43

Sindh: 31/38/10/23/40

NWFP: 29/27/28-41

Balochistan: 48/51/14-44

Source: Safiya Aftab, Journal of Conflict and Peace Studies 1, 1 (October-December 2008) p.70.

We shall be noting later the extent to which uneven development has played a role in undermining nation-building. Certainly, the sense of Punjabi domination of Pakistan has been generated not only by the region’s association with the military, but because it is more highly developed than elsewhere, with the exception of Karachi. More recently attention has been turned to the link between poverty and Islamic militancy. Attention has been drawn to the fact that FATA, which is the most backward region of Pakistan with 60% of the population living below the poverty line, a literacy rate of only 17% and a per capita public expenditure of a third of the national average, have been the focus of insurgencies. Another major area of militant recruitment, however, is southern Punjab. While its poorest districts, such as Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh, lag far behind its richest, the incidence of poverty is not as great as in for example the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. Yet neither of these areas are centres for radicalization and militancy. Muzaffargarh, the lowest ranked Punjabi district in terms of human development index, still in 2003, stood only at 59 out of 91 districts in Pakistan. While poverty and unemployment may feed militancy, this can only be fully understood in terms of a complex mix of religious, sectarian, social and historical factors.

Despite the existence of much poverty and inequality, it would nevertheless be wrong to portray Pakistan as an unchanging society. Despite major failings of governance, economic growth during the past decade has resulted in the emergence of a youthful and dynamic middle-class. According to some assessments there are now as many as 35 million people with a per capita income of up to $1,900. There is no monolithic middle stratum of society; it is differentiated by

• occupation,

• income,

• family antecedents,

• language and

• gender.

The middle classes contain both modernist and traditionalist elements and are as a result not necessarily more Westernized in outlook and lifestyle than the urban younger generation drawn from feudal elites. Indeed, one if the most striking developments of the past decade has been the spread of the orthodox Al-Huda movement amongst educated middle-class Pakistani women. This has promoted the Arab dress code of the full-size abaya. Perhaps the most unifying element of the middle classes is consumerism, as seen in the surge in sales of cars, televisions and mobile phones. One in two Pakistanis is a mobile phone subscriber, one of the highest rates in the region. Civil society groups have established a telemedicine network (Jaroka Telehealthcare) that enables health workers in remote areas to connect to connect with doctors in major cities. In addition to expenditure on electronic durables, the middle classes have become the main users of the burgeoning private educational establishments and privately run poly clinics which have become a marked feature of the urban landscape. According to one estimate, around three-quarters of all health care is provided by the private sector.

The rise of the middle class has also contributed to the growth of electronic media transmissions, which is another marked feature of contemporary Pakistan. The days have long passed when recourse to the BBC World Service and grainy images from the Indian Doordarshan television network were the only alternatives to the strictly controlled state broadcasting. Ease in dealing with an increasingly independent and intrusive media is becoming as much a political requirement in Pakistan as elsewhere in the media-driven world. The new cable networks have, however, strengthened existing orthodoxies in many instances, rather than interrogating them, and in the eyes of some critics have contributed to the powerful anti-Western discourse in contemporary Pakistan. Increased media access has in fact provided new opportunities for the spread of conspiracy theories, which are a marked feature of Pakistani public life. According to some commentators, they reflect a widespread national malaise which, by denying the root causes of Pakistan’s problems, prevent any attempts to address them. Symptomatic of the delusional world of conspiracy theories in Pakistan was the revelation by an international opinion pollster that two-thirds of Pakistanis surveyed believed that the person killed in the US operation in Abbotabad was not Osama bin Laden but a double. The former army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg not only concurred with this view, but maintained that Osama had been killed sometime before in Afghanistan and the 2 May 2011 episode was a US plot to defame Pakistan. Another widely believed conspiracy theory was that the raid on bin Laden was a practice run for the US seizure of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. When Hilary Clinton visited Pakistan towards the end of the month, she pointedly remarked that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear.

With respect to politics, the inchoate character of the middle classes mean that no single party has benefited from their development. In Lahore, middle-class voters are likely to support the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). In Karachi, they divide on ethnic lines, with Pakhtun businessmen, for example, supporting the Awami National Party (ANP), and mohajirs the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) or United National Movement), formerly the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. More traditionalist members of the middle classes throughout Pakistan are likely to vote for the Islamist Party Jamaat-i-Islami (JI or Islamic Society) or the Deobandi party the Jamiat-ulUlama-e-Islam (JUI). Although tiny by Indian standards, the middle classes in Pakistan are beginning to become an important social and economic actor, even if they lack national political power because of the continued grip of the feudal elites and biraderi (kinship group) heads.

It is widely argued in Pakistan that the feudals’ political influence has been a major factor in undermining democracy. The term feudal is used loosely to include the landed and tribal elites, many of whom may have interests not only in capitalist farming, but in agri-businesses and urban real estate development. Moreover, not all feudals’ can rely on the coercive localism described by critics to ensure the votes of their tenants. Socio-economic changes in parts of Punjab, for example, have created circumstances not that dissimilar from India, where elites must constantly rejuvenate their ties with their clients through the provision of patronage, and voters can remove incumbents in order to maximize the benefits they receive from political elites.

The Sindhi waderos symbolize Pakistan’s feudal class. They are seen as using their power to veto socio-economic reforms, including education in their localities. They are also blamed for blocking land reform and rural taxation and for cornering development aid. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s foes argued that he had never outgrown the arbitrariness and cruelty (zulm) of his Sindhi feudal background. Concentration on the waderos ignores the fact that a new landholding class has emerged in parts of Sindh as well as in Punjab in recent decades, drawn from the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and the army. It is also important to recognize that landowning alone is not the sole basis of political power in the countryside. In order to be really effective it needs to be combined with tribal and biraderi (kinship group) leadership and with the notion of reputation. This helps to explain why controls on female sexuality which could bring family dishonour are frequently so savage in tribal communities. Religious sanctity is another source of rural power. The connection between Sufi shrines and power has been traced in the colonial era in the works of such writers as David Gilmartin and Sarah Ansari. At the outset of the post-2008 PPP-led government both the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi hailed from leading Sufi families of Multan. Recent studies have pointed to the fact that Islamists are increasingly challenging the pirs‘ influence not just on the long-established grounds of orthodox resistance to shrine worship, but by presenting themselves as opponents of the feudal structures in which the Sufi order are enmeshed.

Two points need to be made regarding tribal and biraderi leadership. It is well known that the tribal heads (sardars) in Balochistan wield far more power than their counterparts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There are large tribal heads in south Punjab who are originally of Baloch descent: the Legharis represent a good example. Outside Balochistan, the greatest tribal influence is wielded by the waderos of the interior of Sindh. The strongest biraderi networks are found amongst the smaller-scale land holding communities of the central Punjab. Biraderi networks are also important in some towns and cities. Politics in Lahore for example are dominated by the factional struggles amongst members the Arian and Kashmiri biraderis.

Four major impacts of Pakistani feudalism which have encouraged political authoritarianism have been identified by the critics.

1. First, the vast economic and social gulf between the landholding elite and the rural masses has effectively depoliticized the latter. Votes are sought in an atmosphere of coercive localism. The rural poor dare not oppose their landlord patrons.

2. Second, the perpetuation of feudal power relations has contributed to a political culture of violence and combativeness rather than cooperation.

3. Third, the parochial and personalized character of Pakistan politics is rooted in the landlords’ predominance; this is a factor in the weak political institutionalization which has hindered democratic consolidation.

4. Fourth, the landlords are concerned primarily with bolstering the local prestige rather than with pursuing a political agenda. This means that a significant fraction of the rural elite will always be prepared to lend legitimacy ton authoritarian rulers. Along with a section of the ulama, landlords are on hand to join what has been derisively termed the Martial Law B Team.

Mohammad Waseem has recently argued, however, that it is the rightist middle class rather than the feudals who undermine democracy. He maintains that the absolute majority of the middle class is rightist, although lawyers, writers and intellectuals comprise a small pro-democracy element within it. The rightist element is made up of military officers and bureaucrats, engineers, architects, corporate managers, information technologists and businessmen, all of whom are intensely conservative in outlook. While he acknowledges the combative and patronage-driven characteristics of the feudals’ political involvement, he sees traditional landed elites as more reflective of plural ethnolinguistic ties and as being prepared to build alliances across communities and regions. This class is attached to the Islam of pir and shrine, rather than that of the mosque and madrasa. The middle class on the other hand is driven by the twin ideologies of Pakistan nationalism, with its strong anti-Indian sentiment, and scriptural Islam, which is Pan-Islamic and anti-Western sentiment. The rightist middle class shares the state-centric, rather than people-centred vision held by the military and bureaucrat establishment. With the exception of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Waseem maintains that Pakistan’s authoritarian rulers have been drawn from the middle classes. Their stock in trade is that democracy has been hijacked by the feudals, politicians are corrupt and Pakistan society is not yet fit for democracy. Waseem’s views provide a useful counterpoint to the more widely held belief that the rise of the middle class in Pakistan will go hand in hand with democratization and liberalism. Indeed it could be argued that Wahhabi and Deobandi puritanical interpretations of Islam especially appeal to an emerging middle class locked out of power by feudals with their rhetoric of equality, brotherhood of Muslims, and claim that the implementation of the shari’ah will ensure social justice. As Mathew Nelson has so expertly revealed, for the landholding classes, however, a major preoccupation has been to use a combination of coercion, legal delay and political influence to circumvent the shari’ah’s impact on patrilineal customs of female disinheritance. For Nelson, political influence in the Punjabi rural setting lies in the ability to to circumvent existing post-colonial laws which have undermined the British enhancement of tribal custom. He sees the resulting informal patterns of extra-legal political accountability as possessing deleterious consequences for democratic consolidation. His understanding not only challenges Waseem’s, but those who adopt a less nuanced understanding of the lack of efficiency of the district courts and sees the colonial legacies for contemporary Pakistan only in narrow institutional inheritances.


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