Ethnic Federalism in Pakistan: Federal Design, Construction of Ethno-Linguistic Identity, and Group Conflict

SSRN Electronic Journal 04/2014; DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2185435


Region-based political groups in Pakistan have mobilized themselves for political power largely around ethnic and linguistic identities. This article takes a very distinct “federal design” approach to the question of ethnicity-based politics in Pakistan. In many important ways, this approach, while supplementing the current literature on the subject, runs counter to mainstream explanations of the relationship between ethnic identity and group conflict in this hugely diverse and densely populated country. Through an analysis of the triadic relationship between federal design, “ethnicization” of politics (or the process of articulating economic and political contestations through ascriptive ethnic identities), and ethnic conflict, the article attempts to engage with multi-disciplinary scholarship and sources to address some fundamental questions about Pakistan’s future as a federal republic. The article presents this analysis through a case study of the interface between a major ethnic group known as the “Sindhis” (largely rural) and the minority group of Urdu-speaking “Muhajirs” (concentrated mostly in urban cities and towns) in the second most populous province of Sindh in southeast Pakistan. The Muhajirs – literally “migrants” – were essentially Muslim refugees from the Muslim-minority regions of Northern and Central India. They chose, or were compelled, to shift their domicile at the time of partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 to Pakistan, and settled in urban Sindh. Since the 1980’s, the inter-ethnic conflict between Sindhis and Muhajirs (and more recently, other ethnic groups) has engulfed the largest urban industrial and commercial metropolis of Pakistan – Karachi – in unrelenting turmoil and bloodshed. Though a substantial literature exists in history and political science on the birth and evolution of the Muhajir ethnic identity, it remains mute on the contribution of the design of federal frameworks to ethnicity-based group conflict. The Sindhi-Muhajir case study provides deep insights into the very direct linkages between federal design, on the one hand, and, on the other, ethnic identity formation and evolution of minority groups like the Muhajirs that reject ethnicity-based politics to begin with but are compelled to respond with an ethnic backlash to dominant and other ethnic groups protected or privileged by federal structures. From a disciplinary standpoint, the phenomenon of the ethnicization of the Muhajirs is of equal interest to both constitutional theorists and political scientists studying the impact of federal design on the management of ethnically diverse societies. A fascinating corpus of literature has evolved on the use of federal institutional structures for the accommodation of ethnic pluralism. This form of federalism – known as “ethnic federalism” or “multinational federalism” – plays the paramount role of identity recognition, usually in addition to its more conventional functions of devolution of administrative and political autonomy. As a corollary, it is also viewed as a panacea for ethnic discontent and conflict in some ethnically heterogeneous societies. By making the boundaries of political autonomy congruent with territorially discrete ethnic populations, this innovative model of federalism seeks to provide a structural avenue for the legal or formal recognition of ethno-linguistic or cultural identities. Hence, it endeavors to re-orient ethnically-based collective action into non-violent politics (Horowitz, 2007). Pakistan is a prominent example, as well as a highly fertile ground for the study, of “ethnic federalism” since the 1970’s. This article is an attempt to bring one of the largest ethnic federations in the world on the map of scholarly and policy research on questions of federal design for the accommodation of regional and minority groups. The persistence of highly turbulent and violent, and sometimes secessionist, ethnic conflict within sub-national units in federal systems suggests that ethnic federalism has its limitations. As the Sindhi-Muhajir example illustrates, a sub-national political unit whose physical boundary coincides with an ethnically articulated identity may in some ways worsen ethnic conflict by putting the majority sub-national ethnic group in direct confrontation with other minority groups within the sub-national boundary. This has been described by scholars as the “minorities-within-minorities” phenomenon. Particularly in cases where the minority “migrant” group like the Muhajirs has been historically dominant and in control of important political and economic resources at the expense of the majority “indigenous” ethnic group like the Sindhis, the coincidence of political power and ethnic identity through federalization in favor of the latter creates a potentially explosive situation. The Sindhi-Muhajir case study provides a striking example of the minorities-within-minorities problem in ethnic federations. It suggests, in particular, that the minorities-within-minorities problem is as germane to the analysis of structural remediation for inter-ethnic conflict as is the issue of ethnic competition at the more macro stratum that links the sub-nationalities to the center. The structure of this article is as follows. Part I provides a snapshot of ethnic groups and ethnicity-based conflict in Pakistan. It then briefly describes the state of the literature on ethnic conflict in Pakistan and provides an alternative theoretical framework of “federal design” for studying the minorities-within-minorities problem through the Sindhi-Muhajir case study. Part II briefly contextualizes the rise of Muhajir ethnic nationalism in the 1970’s by travelling forward in time to the creation of a Muhajir political party in the mid-1980’s and its subsequent political demands. Through this retrospective lens, Part II explains how the Muhajir ethno-linguistic identity can in fact be traced back to the new federal structure of the 1970’s. This proposed view is in marked opposition to the commonly accepted scholarly opinion that Muhajir nationalist demands emerged in the 1980’s in response to relative economic deprivation, or the popular account propounded by certain political parties that the ethnicity-based organization of the Muhajirs was perpetrated by military and intelligence agencies. Parts III and IV periodize the Sindhi-Muhajir conflict into the pre-federalization and federalization phases, providing alongside a conceptual and genealogical framework for analyzing the minorities-within-minorities problem in Pakistan. Specifically, Part III presents a historical survey of the territorial configuration of the major ethno-linguistic groups in pre-partition India and post-independence Pakistan up till the secession of Bengal in 1970-71. It underscores the parallel political and socio-economic developments of the Sindhis and Mohajirs during this period. Based on this historical study, Part IV critically examines the rationale behind the federal structure introduced in the early 1970’s and the ways in which the new federalism significantly differed from past configurations, as well as its implications for inter-ethnic relations within Sindh. The focus of Part IV is on events between 1970 and 1973, culminating in the formal enactment of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 (the “1973 Constitution”). In light of the preceding analysis, Part V provides a critical appraisal of the link between the federal structure of the 1970’s and the management of inter-ethnic diversity. Additionally, it ties up the analysis in this article to the current federal framework under the 18th Amendment and its implications for ethnicity-based politics and group conflict in Pakistan today, especially the rights of minority groups in the provinces.

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Available from: Maryam S. Khan, Aug 10, 2014

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