The urban-rural divide

Published: June 19, 2011
The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former finance minister of Pakistan

Pakistan’s economic and political future — perhaps even its continued existence as a unified state — will be defined by the way the urban-rural divide finally gets resolved. This divide has been at the centre of social conflict ever since the country emerged as an independent state when there was a sudden infusion of urbanism into a culture that was predominantly rural. This led to conflict between the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’. The insiders were led by the landed community who, after having worked out a comfortable relationship with the British rulers, saw no reason why it should support the idea of Pakistan. They were confident that they could work out a similar arrangement with the Hindus, once the British transferred power to them.

The outsiders were less sanguine about their future in a Hindu-majority political system. They feared that domination by the Hindu community in an independent India would further reduce the economic and political chances available to the Muslim minority. This community had already suffered a great deal once Muslim power had given way to British rule. The British, in fact, had adopted a number of policies to reduce the influence of the Muslim community in the affairs of the country over which they now ruled. Persian was replaced with English as the official language; in recruiting the personnel for the expanding British administration, the new rulers preferred non-Muslims over Muslims; and from 1828 onwards, British authorities began to confiscate land endowments which financed Muslim education. As MJ Akbar reminds us in Tinderbox, “the principal Muslim grievances were in education policy that denied them opportunity, reducing them to ‘contempt and beggary’”.

Once the British established control over what is now Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, they used the state to protect the Muslim community from the economic power of the Hindus and Sikhs. This change in approach towards the Muslims was to reward them for the help they had given the new rulers to suppress the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Since most of the leadership of the insiders was lukewarm to the idea of creating a separate homeland for the Muslim community, it took some time before this group was able to reassert itself. In the meantime, Pakistan was governed by a ruling elite that drew its power from the outsiders — the muhajir community. In other words, the first generation of Pakistani rulers had a strong urban bias in their thinking about economic and political issues. One consequence of this orientation was the neglect of agriculture which was the most important part of the economy.

As a result of this history, these two Muslim communities — those from Muslim-minority and Muslim-majority areas — developed very different approaches towards the state. The former saw the state’s role limited to a few functions; the latter placed a heavy reliance on the state. Once the insiders were in power, they pulled the state in to help them consolidate their economic hold over the country.

The urban bias could not be maintained over time. It was corrected when the military came to power under General Ayub Khan. Both the military president and the troops he commanded had deep roots in rural Pakistan. Ayub Khan brought in a landlord — the Nawab of Kalabagh — to help him govern the then West Pakistan . The nawab introduced a style of governance that has persisted to this day. In spite of the enormous amount of demographic and economic change that has occurred over the last several decades, the landed interests continue to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over political and economic decision-making . The nawab’s influence on statecraft has not been fully appreciated. He froze the process of change and the political ascendency of the refugee community that had begun to occur with the founding of Pakistan. This is where the situation stands today. The ruling elite refuse to allow modernisation from entering the political, economic and social domains, even when they profess to favouring democracy. The ruling elite exercise total control over policymaking. They don’t allow people to influence the making of policy through their representatives in the national and provincial assemblies. In this context, I am intrigued by the focus the Planning Commission has placed in its growth strategy on the city as the driver of economic and social change. Whether the current political masters allow this strategy to be pursued and how it could correct the current, rural-based system are some questions for a later article.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • Jun 20, 2011 - 12:51AM

    Rural output is just not sexy enough for our planners, even though we are passing through a period of increased commodity prices. Recommend

  • Max
    Jun 20, 2011 - 1:45AM

    I am little shy in accepting this thesis and respectfully disagree with the author on following points.
    In the post-1857, Muslims were not excluded from any kind of political arrangement, neither were they treated any different from other communities. The Muslims themselves, however, excluded themselves from the Raj on several pretexts (mostly religious orthodoxy).
    Second, invaders always rule through their own rules, lingua-franca, and norms and administrative practices. Keeping Persian alive was certainly not possible, given the rules of the game had changed. Persian was kept alive where necessary. The author was a member of the civil service and knows quite well that revenue records still use the Persian language, Ishtamal Arazi, Abyaina, Gardawari, Halqa Qanun go, etc etc. English was being taught before the 1857 and several Muslim including the royalty (two sons of Bahadar Shah Zafar) were also learning English.
    Anyway, my main point is epistemology (insiders and outsiders). All outsiders were not landless peasants or the members of the salaried class. A large number of peasantry that migrated to Pakistan from current days Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, or Haryana were actually no different from the local population in terms of their socio-economic background. Also a substantial number of land-owners, mostly Taulaqdars of Oudh and United Provinces also migrated. So that evens up the score. However, the number of “outsiders” who were educated and represented in the civil service and professions was much higher. They were able to establish their monopoly over the civil-military bureaucratic apparatus during the formative years of Pakistan and keep it right up till 1970s.
    The peasantry of Punjab, or of other provinces that became Pakistan did not benefit from Ayub Khan’s policies rather was pushed aside through his all mighty Governor Malik Amir Muhammad Khan). Nawab Amir Khan himself was a member of the Punjab Civil Service and more a representative of the landed elite than the ordinary Punjabi, Pathan , Baluchi, or Sindhi (John Lawrence had died long ago, and with the end of Raj also ended the paternalistic policies).
    Ayub’s policies were actually more geared towards patronizing the business-industrial elite of Karachi and other urban cities (remember 22 families).
    Anyway, the author has a right to his point of view, but I need concrete examples. On the whole a good essay. It opens-up discussion on something other than whatever is happening on the northwestern flank of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Jun 20, 2011 - 2:20PM

    Pakistani society is divided not only on the basis of urban and rural but all type biases forms i.e ethnic, provincially,sectarian,religion,tribes,castes,Jagirdaries, Peers, Mashaiq and what not. The rulers who come from a few hundred elite families,always remain united, though they talk against each other to befool public, whom they consider and treat as slaves. We public i.e slaves should become united and finish all type of divide to become participants in systems of Government, otherwise there will be no end to our sufferings.. Recommend

  • usman
    Jun 20, 2011 - 2:51PM

    @Max: to take your argument forward, i want to problematize a fact that Punjab mostly remained on the margin untill 1946 from the two-nation doctrine of Muslim League. We know uninonist party was inclusive. But after partition Punjab accepted the north-Indian dominated ideology of Muslim Leagure.

    Two things may answer:
    a) Punjabi Civil Servents accepted the doctrine of outsiders to neutralize the influence of outsiders.
    b) A wholesale migration of Hindus and SIkhs left the vaccum that provided space to the ideology of Muslim Leahue (two-nation) to take firm root.
    c) Muslims of urban Punjab were marginalized by Unionists and they took vengence (metaphorically) by accepting the narrative of exclusion.Recommend

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