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To the Punjabi intelligentsia

Even when Pakistan had not been dismembered and Bengalis were the largest ethno-linguistic group within the state –outnumbering all other groups and nationalities combined – the Punjabi elite and middleclass first shared with their counterpart Mohajirs and then started carrying the pennon of Pakistani nationalism solely. After the dismemberment of the country, Punjabis compose the largest segment of the population and their affluent classes have a sway over whatever happens in the economic, social and political realms.

The military and civilian bureaucracy is thoroughly dominated by Punjab. In fact those who come from Hindko-speaking belts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Kashmir are also seen as quasi-Punjabis. Besides, quite a few individuals of Punjabi origin are selected into these institutions from places like Quetta and Karachi. Long periods of martial rule and the continued presence of an overdeveloped civilian bureaucracy have led to the absence of democracy and democratic decision-making, participatory and inclusive culture, accommodating ethnic and religious minorities etc.

This leads to increased anger and resistance to Punjab’s dominance in most people from other provinces who want to see themselves as equal citizens of Pakistan. Even within Punjab, the Seraiki identity has asserted itself for the past many years primarily due to intra-provincial inequalities. A counter argument given in this respect is that none of the military dictators were Punjabi or that such and such number of senior civil servants and high-ranking military officers are Pakhtun or from Karachi.

Some of my anti-Zia actually go to the extent of calling Gen Ziaul Haq a Mohajir since he came from Jallundhar (East Punjab). Whether Gen Ayub Khan spoke Hindko or Gen Musharraf spoke Urdu (by the way his paternal side originally came from Panipat), it is not the individual but the institution that matters. Whose economic, social and political interests are served or taken care of by that institution is what really matters. Is there any doubt that we continued with British colonial practices in our institutions and that even today more than 85 percent of the military strength belongs to Punjab?

Likewise, is it fair that due to either lopsided investment or a lack of investment in educating the local population of Balochistan for decades, many government officials, military officers or judges who come in service streams from Balochistan really hail from Punjab? I know these trends are shifting but one, a lot of damage is done already and two, even now the pace for changing this is much slower than it should be.

Equitable distribution and ownership of resources remains an issue between the provinces because it is not only about direct allocation for Punjab, but a much larger share for the federation instead of provinces is also seen as mostly going to Punjab. Ironically, Punjab did not want the resources to be distributed among the provinces on the basis of population when East Pakistan was a part of the republic until 1971. Since then it does. As a result, there is a complete mistrust between the provinces.

The Kalabagh dam is also a case in point. Essentially, it is that deep mistrust between Punjab, Khyber Pakhtukhwa and Sindh that stops the project before it takes off. What is this mistrust rooted in? One answer is that in the past, Sindh – which is the lower riparian – was informed of a season canal to be taken out of an earlier barrage. Sindh agreed. Later on, the canal was turned into a perennial canal and used water from the share of the lower riparian.

Punjab is seen as oppressive, exclusionary and a usurper of other’s rights and resources. There are many tales that can be told, and arguments and counter arguments that can be made. By no means are elites from other provinces, particularly the Mohajir elite that treated Pakistan as a colony for so many years and thought of the common people in the country as sub-humans, absolved of what has gone wrong. But in today’s Pakistan, Punjab has a pivotal role to play if the federation has to survive and thrive. Particularly in the wake of a massively Punjabi-dominated political government in the federation, the responsibility on the Punjabi intelligentsia increases.

The way the federal government dealt with the formation of the provincial government in Balochistan is certainly a good beginning but does not suffice. Pakhtuns, Sindhis, Mohajirs, and the Baloch all have grievances. Are they all wrong? Were the Bengalis wrong too? So who is right then? But rather than issuing certificates of loyalty and disloyalty to other peoples and provinces, which the retired colonels and brigadiers from Punjab and a motley group of Punjabi columnists are most fond of doing in their conversations and writings even today – the intelligentsia at large being defensive and getting angry on correct and incorrect blames and accusations – Punjabis should take stock of what did not go right, introspect and capitalise on their own traditional values and cultural strengths.

Punjab’s anti-imperial, people-centred and historically inclusive character has to come out in the political realm as well. What a tragedy that Punjab, which has made the most contribution to a composite South Asian culture, not just Pakistani, is seen very differently in the politics of Pakistan. This must change and the change has to be led by the Punjabi intelligentsia itself. The real message from Punjab to the perpetrators of injustice, torchbearers of imperialism and upholders of colonialism that had come out over centuries can be seen in the struggles of people like Dulla Bhatti, Guru Gobind Singh and Bhagat Singh and the writings from our subversive Sufi poets to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Amrita Pritam and Habib Jalib. They give a universal message of truth, humanity and freedom.

If we look at the development of the enlightened political movements, and progressive and socially informed literature, Punjab produced political workers, writers, poets, artists and thinkers who made significant contributions in their fields and participated in other movements that were wider in nature and scope. Their struggle went much beyond Punjab.

Faiz, for instance, symbolises that resistance poetry from all of South Asia which is deeply humanistic in nature. It was Habib Jalib who ferociously challenged autocratic military and civilian rulers, powerful elites and religious orthodoxy through his verse. His is a household name. The inclusive culture of Punjab is reflected in its cinema – not the content perhaps but by those who constitute it. The actors, heroes, heroines, villains, directors, producers of Punjabi films speak Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto as their first languages. They are celebrated by Punjab with an open heart.

The way Punjab and its primate city Lahore have embraced writers, artists, political workers, scholars and musicians from all over South Asia reflects Punjab’s inclusivity and ability to provide physical, intellectual and artistic space to all others. If we go back into the times of Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh – his intellectual, humanist and mystic brother of the emperor whom he got brutally killed in 1659 – wanted to move to Lahore after surrender in order to spend the rest of his life at the tomb of his spiritual leader, Mian Mir. Mian Mir himself was a Sufi saint from Sindh who had finally chosen to settle in Punjab.

It is time for the Punjabi intelligentsia to mould its political behaviour, make itself inclusive, accommodating and just – within and outside Punjab. The poor and struggling classes of Punjab do not share the bounties with affluent Punjabis either. Punjab must be prepared to share both economic resources and political power with all stakeholders in the state of Pakistan equally. Intellectually, Punjab has to decide if it subscribes to the value system of Aurangzeb or with that of Dara Shikoh.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "To the Punjabi intelligentsia," The News. 2013-09-04.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Military-Pakistan , Government-Pakistan , Decision making , Dictatorship , Economic resources , Bureaucracy , Democracy , Gen Ayub Khan , Gen Musharraf , Punjab , Khyber Pakhtukhwa , Sindh