Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reordering the Space of Pakistan, Again?

Many people are well aware that the CIA, an ostensibly civilian organization, has deployed and used unmanned drones to fire missiles at human targets in Pakistan. Even as Predator Drones are being deployed, the unfortunate term ‘afpak’ has saturated the political discourse as well; this term invites its users to further imagine larger scale US anti-terrorist activities in yet another foreign country. Pakistan has increasingly been described as a failed or failing state and political rhetoricians regularly endorse more intervention in its internal affairs. If Pakistan is indeed failing, and perhaps the weekly bombings in Lahore and elsewhere lend themselves to this analysis, then how did it become so?

David Gilmartin, a professor of history at North Carolina State University and Director of the North Carolina Center for South Asian Studies, argues that British intervention in Punjab during the colonial occupation of the region set the stage for the current internal divisions. Gilmartin’s Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan, published by the University of California Press in 1988, makes the case that the British ultimately caused the contemporary crisis of government in Pakistan.

After the invasion of Punjab in 1849 the British sought allies in the region and chose to make alliances with leaders of families in the countryside. While religion was a central feature of the pre-British Punjabis ruling order, this angle was dismissed in place of ‘tribal’ networks and affiliations. He argues that where urban spaces and religious affiliations were the source of stability and community, new relationships were built based on British whims their ideas of governmental order implemented. Eventually, the British distributed “landed gentry” grants to those they saw as ready to deal with the British. Those who had power in the old system and those coming to power in the new system came into tension.

Gilmartin’s argument centers on the tension created between the social organizational structures of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus before the British occupation and the new order of power the British created. From this point, through Partition, and up into the present Pakistan has had a difficult time finding a balance in governmental affairs, with various sects vying for power. Some would like to see a state more closely in line with Islamic or Sikh principles while others—often in league with Western partners—would like to see a more secular state. Gilmartin makes a case that a range of disorder has its roots in the British style of reordering the space of Punjab.

Now again Western powers seek to reorder the region. The US continues to offer and give money to the government of Pakistan with strings attached, attempting to produce a space mapped on Western ideals. The CIA operates unmanned aircraft in Pakistani airspace, regularly killing via satellite from Virginia. Given the track record of the West’s intervention in the region and the consequent state of affairs therein, shouldn’t such intrusive measures be reconsidered, especially given the overtly violent nature of this late enterprise?


Devin Zane Shaw said...

For a more recent look at the relationship between Pakistan and the US, I would recommend Tariq Ali's The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power .

Devin Zane Shaw said...

although it sometimes lacks Ali's usual polemical flair.

Jason R. B. Smith said...

Thanks! I will check it out.