September 11, 2010
This artificial nation has already lost Bangladesh. Now floods give good reason to dismember the rest.
Pakistan “is confronted with an existential threat from fanatics, zealots and extremists on the one hand and from the material devastation caused by the history’s worst floods on the other,” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stated earlier this week. “The existence of Pakistan” is now at stake, echoed Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The end of Pakistan — its dismemberment into its constituent parts — could be all for the good. Pakistan — a creation of colonial Britain that’s barely a half-century old — is less a country than an acronym whose passing would soon be forgotten. There is no Pakistani nation.
The P in Pakistan stands for Punjab, its most industrialized region whose Indus River people have an ancient civilization. The A stands for Afghania, a backward rural region (since renamed) that could not be more different than the Punjab. The K stands for Kashmir, an agriculturally rich, conflict-riven area cleaved and claimed by India and China as well as Pakistan. S stands for Sindh, another Indus River nation whose history is also as old as civilization itself, and which rivals the Punjab in literacy and economic development. Pakistan’s last three letters — TAN — represent Balochistan, its largest but least populous and poorest province, despite its mineral riches.
Unlike the nations represented by the Pakistani acronym and unlike the numerous other nations and ethnicities that also lie within the current borders of Pakistan, there was no Pakistani people before the acronym was coined, no Pakistani culture, no Pakistani language. Punjabi is the provincial language of Punjab, Sindhi is the official language of Sindh; Balochs primarily speak Balochi, others among the country’s population of 170 million speak numerous other languages.
What languages have status throughout Pakistan? English, an import from the West that has been made the “official language,” and Urdu, a language chosen to be the “national language” because few identified with it, making it a neutral choice — Urdu is the mother tongue of just 8% of Pakistanis.
Pakistan is a dysfunctional assortment of disparate, often warring peoples, ethnicities, and cultures whose sum is much less than the potential of its parts, despite much vaunted attempts at nation building. The central government’s recent ineptness and callousness in protecting the populace from the flooding leads many to fear the natural disaster will be a last straw, particularly since secessionists are getting kudos for their ability to deliver relief and for their care of the populace.
Ironically, the floods themselves are a consequence of the Pakistani central government’s attempts at nation-building. Soon after Pakistan’s establishment in 1947, its government embarked on an aggressive dam building program along Pakistan’s Indus River, turning its river basin into the world’s longest contiguous system of man-made canals and water courses. With this interference in the natural flow of the river came siltation, causing the canals to clog up, and a drying up of the floodplains, preventing their ability to soak up the rains that would cause the floods. The upshot: An estimated 20 million Pakistanis, or more than 10% of the populace, have been victimized by the flooding. Further inflaming the populace is the central government’s blind disregard of the risks — the dams were built despite decades of opposition from local communities who warned that the dam building program would expose the riverside populations to a future flood calamity.
The current threat of secession has a parallel, in 1970 in the province of East Pakistan, when the country suffered its first massive natural disaster. A cyclone that ripped through an enormous swath of land left as many as 500,000 dead and caused suffering in another three million. The central government’s ineptness and callousness cemented the sentiment for separation. East Pakistan became the sovereign country of Bangladesh the following year.
If Pakistan does break up, another parallel provides hope. A few years after the civil war, the dirt-poor country of Bangladesh began to find its feet. Its economy has more than doubled since 1975 and is now increasing at an impressive 5%-6% per year. Goldman Sachs lists it among its Next-11, or one of the countries with high potential to become one of the world’s largest economies. Bangladesh is modernizing in social terms too, with civil strife and Islamism on the retreat and literacy and urbanization on the ascendancy.
Bangladesh’s secession, in hindsight, was all to the good. Completing the dismemberment of Pakistan may well be too.