Dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Pakistan

Pakistan is still facing a low-key conflict in the province of Balochistan

Dr Raza Khan July 21, 2017
The writer is a researcher and political, security and governance expert. Email: razapkhan@yahoo.com

Ethnic conflicts have been a key feature since the dawn of the modern nation-state system. Pakistan’s history is also witness to several ethnicity-based conflicts, one of which also led to the dismemberment of the country in 1971.

Pakistan is still facing a low-key conflict in the province of Balochistan, which gnaws at the country’s overall development. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the causes, dynamics and aspects of ethnic conflicts.

Approximately, 80% of states are multiethnic, meaning that no ethnic group dominates the society. Ethnic conflict has been one of the world’s most common sources of warfare, insecurity, and loss of life. According to the Minorities at Risk database, 121 ethnic conflicts occurred between 1945 and 2003. Some 40% of conflicts started after 1990. Since 1955, ethnic conflicts have killed between 13 million and 20 million civilians an in addition to this resulted in 14 million internationally recognised refugees and about 17 million internally displaced persons.

Ethno-linguistic movements have a range of goals mostly political in orientation. These ends, inter alia, include demands for self-governance, autonomy, better access to resources and power and respect for the group’s identity and culture. Ethnic conflict arises if ethnic groups compete for the same goals — power, access to resources, or territory. The conflict in Balochistan is a typical case in point.

Violent ethnic conflicts are caused mainly by social and political systems that lead to inequality and grievances and do not offer forums for the peaceful expression of differences. Ethnic identity is the underlying cause of conflicts. In ethnic conflicts the goals of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the conflict, its causes, and potential remedies are perceived along ethnic lines. The conflict is usually not about ethnic differences per se but over political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial matters.

Researchers have identified that if the political goal of ethnic mobilisation is self-determination, the movement is called nationalism. Against this backdrop the use of the term nationalism in Pakistan for ethnic parties by our groups or the parties themselves have had large-scale negative repercussions. The fact of the matter is that most of these ethnic parties in Pakistan may have joined the political mainstream but they still espouse self-determination, a euphemism for separation. Most of ethnic parties’ leaders admit this in private and at times publicly.

Ethnic disputes emerge in times of sweeping political, economic, and social change(s). Grievances and polarising leadership lead to mobilisation, ranging from political action to violent acts such as terrorism, armed uprisings, and guerrilla and civil wars. Contemporary Pakistan is perhaps going through the same stage.

There are two categories of causes of ethnic conflicts:  “underlying” and “proximate”. The former includes structural factors, political factors, economic and social factors plus cultural and perceptual factors. Proximate causes embrace four levels of conflict triggers: internal, mass-level factors (bad domestic problems); external, mass-level factors (bad neighbourhoods); external, elite-level factors (bad neighbours); and internal, elite-level factors (bad leaders). States having territorially concentrated ethnic groups located near a border or with ethnic kin in an adjacent state.

These groups show high levels of organisation and increased group cohesion and are able to use shared homelands as a territorial base for their political struggle. Ethnic conflicts in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are cases in point.

Ethnic conflict is particularly likely in states in which ethnic groups are inadequately represented in the government and the political and judicial systems. Liberal democracies that focus on the ideals of pluralism, individualism, inclusion, political debate, and near consensus among all participants are less likely to experience rebellion or uprisings.

Exclusionary national ideologies are also an important cause of ethnic conflict. Nationalism and, in an increased form, citizenship based on ethnic distinctions are especially dangerous because such ideologies tend to flourish in situations of political uncertainty and economic collapse. Other forms of exclusionary national ideologies include religious fundamentalism and supremacist, fascist expressions. The MQM-London is an example of the latter.

Competition for limited natural resources is one of the major factors leading to ethnic conflict. The conflict in former East Pakistan and today in Balochistan have primarily been due to these factors. Within the context of proximate causes, refugees or fighters from neighbouring countries, who cross the border often bring violence and turmoil with them. The descent of millions of Afghan refugees on Pakistan and the evolution of the ‘culture of violence’ thereof in Pakistan, is an example.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2017.

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