The myth of the ‘urban-rural’ divide

Sadly, Mr Burki's article does not clearly convey what is meant by “resolving” the urban-rural divide.

Haider Nizamani June 29, 2011

Shahid Javed Burki, in an article titled “The urban-rural divide”, published in the June 20 issue of this paper, has made an alarming assertion that Pakistan’s existence as a unified state will be defined by the way the urban-rural divide finally gets resolved. This shocking prognosis could have been taken seriously only if it was backed up by convincing empirical and historical evidence. What we have instead are sweeping generalisations, usage of concepts without adequately defining them, and, above all, a portrayal of the country’s past and present rid with contradictions.

For example, in the second paragraph it says “the British, in fact, had adopted a number of policies to reduce the influence of the Muslim community in the affairs of the country in which they now ruled”. But the third paragraph begins with the sentence: “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”.

The evidence offered to back up these points is sketchy at best. In fact, exclusive reliance on the religious lens to look at complex and variegated trajectories of British rule in India leads to such contradictory statements.

Then there is a jump to the post-independence period where the ‘urban-rural’ divide is assigned centrality to the social conflict and Burki argues that there was “sudden infusion of urbanism into a culture that was predominantly rural” which “led to the conflict between ‘the insiders’ and ‘the outsiders’”.

This is factually incorrect because a majority of Pakistanis in that period lived in what was East Bengal and the landed community did not lead Bengali society. Furthermore, carelessly using terms interchangeably where ‘rural’ becomes ‘insiders’ and the ‘urban’ becomes ‘outsiders’ will not pass the test of empirical rigour.

The author suggests that “Pakistan was governed by a ruling elite that drew its powers from the outsiders — the muhajir community” and these rulers had “a strong urban bias in their thinking”. We are not provided with any examples that would set this so-called period’s urban bias apart from the rural bias.

We are told that the urban bias was “corrected when the military came to power under General Ayub Khan” as he and his troops had deep roots in rural Pakistan.

A couple of simple examples will illustrate how the ‘urban-rural divide’ is ill-equipped to explain policies pursued by the ruling classes of post-independence Pakistan. There were no land reforms during the ‘urban bias’ period of 1947 to 1958. Even the badly implemented land reforms legislation was introduced under what Burki terms the ‘rural bias’ regime of Ayub Khan. Far from being a rural-bias regime, the ‘first military dictatorship dutifully followed the development state model’ whose ideological mantra included industrialisation and urbanisation.

The only, and I believe overrated, evidence Burki finds of rural-bias was the appointment of Nawab Kalabagh as the governor of West Pakistan. According to Burki, the nawab “froze the process of change and the political ascendancy of the refugee community that had begun to occur with the founding of Pakistan”. That an individual can “freeze” the process of change is indicative of the author’s rather static view of Pakistani society.

Sadly, the article does not clearly convey what is meant by “resolving” the urban-rural divide and how it can singularly determine if Pakistan will continue its unified existence.

What the article does demonstrate is the author’s static view of history and his lack of appreciation of the dynamic of the change that Pakistani society is presently undergoing. These shortcomings, in my humble opinion, are a result of the author’s reductionist approach of oversimplifying Pakistani society into neatly divided ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ sectors.



Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2011.

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COMMENTS (10)

Tony Singh | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend @Asad Badruddin: You have a valid point there. All refugees tend to settle in urban areas since firstly there are more employment opportunities. Secondly they can become "one of the crowd" in cities, (thereby live in relative anonyminity) which is very difficult in rural communities (given the hiarchy and feudal system prevalent, the population size, and also no one would allow them to settle in "their land").
Frank | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend Ba Ha
It is a fact that there were very few Muslim landowners who could cultivate freely from the Sutluj to Peshawar. The Sikhs were too strong under Ranjit Singh and decedents
Most of the Muslim landowners were allies of Ranjeet Singh. Ranjeet Singh's sole descendent Duleep Singh was a servant in Queen Victoria's household.
Muslims helped the British to defeat Ranjit Singh so it stands to reason that the British protected Muslims.
Nonsense. Ranjeet Singh's Muslim nobles stayed loyal to him to the very end. Ranjeet Singh was betrayed by the Dogra brothers of Jammu and by his Hindustani nobles. Both Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims helped the British to put down the Hindustani mutiny of 1857.
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