Is class still destiny in Pakistan?

Published: September 29, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore

Somewhere along the way, Pakistan has forgotten about its classes and how they are created, especially how certain classes are supposed to be permanently disadvantaged because of their identity. The buzz today is poverty alleviation without much thought to the class structure in which poverty is meant to be alleviated. The general comprehension of how things will sort out economically is restricted to the state’s facilitation of the private sector’s ‘capitalist class’.

That does not mean that there are no classes. In Pakistan, there are identity groups created by the historical process in the rural economy and the relatively recent categories of the working class in the urban economy. A teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Taimur Rahman, has written an impressively learned book on the subject The Class Structure of Pakistan (OUP 2012), which is worth reading for its insights.

His thesis is derived from Hegel’s formulation that ‘the development of history is the result of internal contradictions’, which when applied to society means that these internal contradictions are actually class contradictions as they arise on the basis of the modes of production and class structure. The aim of his book is to examine the dominant mode of production and class structure of Pakistan.

There are insights on the way to the central thesis. He tells us how French social philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755), who belongs in my intellectual pantheon of European minds as someone who posited ‘relativism’ as a vehicle of tolerance, got it wrong with his term ‘oriental despot’. He thought that “whereas the power of the European monarchs was constrained by the Despotic (absolute) power over their courtiers”, the oriental despot ruled without constraints because people living in warm countries were “hot-tempered”. And that France was more suitable for “the development of republican governments”.

Voltaire was, of course, more of a ‘relativist’ when he debunked Montesquieu and opined that although China’s empire was despotic, it was not tyrannical.

In newly-created Pakistan, classes were born out of the pattern of ownership of land. Landlords were few and humanity dependent on land and working for the landlords were myriad. Three per cent owned 30 per cent of the arable land, most of them Rajput and Jat.

In the 1950s, the evolution of class-based communist mind among the rural population was averted by the Harvard Advisory Group positing a high-growth Green Revolution. Land reform failed and the big owners of land were able to duck it, thus keeping intact the pattern of ownership of land that perpetuated the class structure (p 162).

In the countryside, class system is another name for caste system and it changes at a glacial pace: “In a word, the very existence of the caste system is the best proof of Asiatic stagnation” (p 238). One can understand why Pakistani society reacts maniacally to couples marrying by free choice after reading that the rural class system survived by endogamy and Pakistan’s cities are too recent of birth to overcome it: “Caste is nothing but a division of labour that is hereditary” (p 238).

More insights are offered when analysing the lasting angst of Pakistani society: “On the one hand, slavish worship of capitalist modernity; on the other, a search for non-Western identity that inexorably leads to reactionary ideologies. On the one hand, sections of society that are completely Westernised and more at home in London or New York than in Lahore or Karachi; on the other, sections of society opposed to Westernisation and aspiring to re-create an Islamic Khilafat.”

P.S.: The index is not so good.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2012. 

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Max
    Sep 29, 2012 - 10:32PM

    Looking forward to read Taimur Rehman’s book. This review is good but too simplistic The class formation cannot be separated from state formation. Taimur’s thesis may be correct but only in the formative phase of Pakistan. starting from 1960, we also see the emergence of mercantile class if not bourgeois as the key player. I have applied Hegel’s dialects and state bias in my research (state apparatus and policies biased in favor of rising mercantile class). but my primary focus has always been Guillermo O’Donnell,s Bureaucratic-Authoritarian model. I very strongly believe that Pakistani enigma can best be understood through O’Donnell’ BA model.
    Having said this I am glad that younger generation,Taimur and others, are using theoretical models in analyzing the Pakistani malaise. The research that came out in 1970-1990 was just hopeless (with emphasis on description and less or no theoretical rigor).


  • Lala Gee
    Sep 29, 2012 - 11:25PM

    Diversity of views, culture, and race is perhaps not as bad as lack of morals, character, and intelligence, especially in the leadership, which is the real cause of Pakistan’s problems.


  • usman
    Sep 30, 2012 - 12:28AM

    the best part of the article is exposition of “tolerance” the way it understood in Continental Europe and British Isles. For Continent it was necessity borne out of Hegelian “Master/Slave” contest for survival. For British Isles, it was made possible via “relativism” which not only achieved tolerance for survival but also the evolution and progress.


  • Dr Imran Ahmed
    Sep 30, 2012 - 11:57AM

    Summary: The caste system is undesirable


  • Usman Ahmad
    Sep 30, 2012 - 12:47PM

    I think Hamza Aalvi and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar are a better guide for understanding the class structure in Pakistan.


  • Erfan
    Sep 30, 2012 - 1:10PM

    “Caste is nothing but division of labour which is hereditary” is questionable, as caste is reflective of the character traits of a community belonging to a particular caste.This is evident from the Arabs caste system that nobility has got less to do with the financial standing of the caste in the society.Actually, in Pakistan the focus on the values attached to a particular caste is not known to new generation.A balance has to be maintained in understanding the traits of a particular caste without penalizing them for their linkage with that caste.


  • Ali
    Oct 1, 2012 - 12:21AM

    I think the point made about marraiges is very pertinent when discussing class structure of Pakistan. When yousafzai does not marry Bugti and Bugti does not marry Syed and Syed does not marry Jatt and so on and so forth then the intermingling between different groups never goes beyond attending each others marraiges and funerals. And broad sweeping racist statements like Pathans are nut cases and Gujjar’s are milkmen become common in the society which aids to maintaining the class/case structure even more. Vicious cycle me says.


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