The myth of the ‘urban-rural’ divide

Published: June 29, 2011
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The writer teaches political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada and is currently teaching a course at LUMS.

The writer teaches political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada and is currently teaching a course at LUMS.

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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Reader Comments (10)

  • Noor Nabi
    Jun 30, 2011 - 2:16AM

    Burki is another arm-chair commentator who likes to proliferate his wisdom from Washington, DC. He has, as is well-known, had a stellar career working for the World Bank, a handmaiden for the advancement of neo-colonialists. Sometimes he is marvelling about China and on other occassion he beats around the bush as an expert on Turkey. Now that he has a comfortable pension in hard currency it might not be a bad idea for him to come to Pakistan and roll up his sleeves to work towards the betterment of Pakistan. Ijaz Nabi, one of this former colleagues, has done just that and there are other innumerable examples in the same context.

    Burki should stop lecturing from the perch of a pulpit near the White House and return to help a country that he purportedly loves. If his objective is to continue lecturing through vague, nebulous and hazy speechofying through the medium of this erstwhile newspaper we already have enough of that. Recommend

  • Asad Badruddin
    Jun 30, 2011 - 8:29AM

    I’m not sure what problem the author has with Javed Burki. Granted he should have provided some empirical evidence, but I’m not sure there is much data from the late 19th century and 20th century to give specific numbers. I do not see the contradiction between protecting the Muslims in two out of the many provinces of India but reducing their power overall (since the rulers of India were mostly Muslim then)

    The Muhajirs were inclined towards urbanism which can be seen in the language they chose for Pakistan — Urdu a language that was non-ethnic and had no roots in the rural country side. Only educated people in India knew this language.

    Today there is a rural bias – which is why our wheat and cotton crops are doing really well but there is no electricity in our cities or clean drinking water.Recommend

  • Frank
    Jun 30, 2011 - 9:32AM

    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”.

    In the first 70 years or so of their rule in Pakistan the British gave Hindus and Sikhs very favourable treatment. Sikhs in particular were given preference when gifting newly irrigated lands in the Sandal Bar canal colonies. These lands had belonged to local Muslim clans and it was a great injustice to them to gift their lands to Sikh outsiders from places like Malwa and Doaba.. Eventually the British realized they had gone too far and tried to reverse the imbalance they themselves had created. Recommend

  • Zeeshan H
    Jun 30, 2011 - 11:40AM

    Thank you Mr Nizamani. I’ve always found SJ Burki’s articles riven with inconsistencies and exaggerations. I can’t fathom why he’s so well respected and how he made it to a senior position at the World Bank. Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Jun 30, 2011 - 1:29PM

    Rather than looking into historical nature, its better to understand rural -urban divide in today’s context.
    The “urban -rural” divide does exist. It exists in all countries, developed, developing or under developed. The reason simply is that the demands and economics of agranian communities are different from industrial communities. I cannot comment on Pakistan’s situation but in Indian context the assertion of agranian communities has had an impact on industrialisation ( The Singur- Tata, Posco, forest rights and others). The government of the day has to strike a balance between the balance between the two. Else there is bound to be friction that might one day breakup the nation In that sense Mr. Burki does have a point.
    2. Culturally too, the world over, urban societies of different countries have more in common than perhaps the rural societies in their own countries (same is true for rural socities too)Recommend

  • Nizamuddin
    Jun 30, 2011 - 3:14PM

    Dear Dr, Nizamani;..Many socalled urbanised intellectuals like Mr Burky most of the time, table logics and arguments for thier indoctrination aimed at justifying the past anti-indigenious policies implemented by the ruling elite. Good to hear a timely rejooinder from you. But it appears you were in hurry so sort of juming in the contents, or may be editited by the publishers. Express Tribune desrve appreciation for balancing the two versions.
    Please keep it up

    NizamRecommend

  • Jun 30, 2011 - 3:26PM

    I am glad Haider Nizamani took up the issue of the rural-urban divide. A divide has always existed in terms of the needs and lifestyles of the people living in the towns and cities and the countryside. But I an not clear what Mr Burki means by the bias having shifted to the urban or the rural areas. The fact is that the locus of power in Pakistan has always been in the urban areas; All along political power has been wielded by the big landowners who have always lived in the cities. As a matter of policy they have never tried to develop the rural areas where their power base lies. They probably believe that by keeping people in a state of depression they can continue to exercise power over themRecommend

  • Ba Ha
    Jun 30, 2011 - 9:18PM

    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. Muslims helped the British to defeat Ranjit Singh so it stands to reason that the British protected Muslims.Recommend

  • Frank
    Jul 1, 2011 - 9:52AM

    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.Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Jul 1, 2011 - 12:10PM

    @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”).Recommend

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