Saturday, June 5

Caste in Pakistan and what it explains about violence in the country

Last night John Batchelor worried aloud during his "Afpak" roundtable that dehumanized descriptions of Pakistan's Ahmadi (Ahmadiyya) minority sect being expressed by other Pakistanis are a common sign of a buildup to genocide.

Dehumanized descriptions of people are as old as war, tribal rivalries, and prejudice. And there's no question that an increase in such talk has been a precursor to genocide and democide, and that such talk has been invoked by governments as a justification for both. Robert Mugabe's description of Zimbabwe's urban poor as "cockroaches" is an example of the latter, as John mentioned last night.

But in the case of Pakistan, dehumanizing language is almost universally invoked by Pakistanis to refer to other Pakistanis of a lower caste. Pakistanis have dehumanized each other to a degree that's hard for Americans to grasp because in the USA dehumanizing language has been greatly sublimated as a justification for war and prejudice.

Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, was not described by President G. W. Bush as a cockroach that needed to be exterminated; instead, he was described as evil and in other terms that suggested he was satanic, which is another way of saying 'not human.'

In Pakistan and many other parts of the old world, even in this era things are still more basic, more in touch with the rawer aspects of human nature. I recall a heated exchange a few years ago between Libya's president and the Saudi king during an official dialogue, during which they started calling each other donkeys; the mike was shut off before they really got wound up.

So while rigid enforcement of caste in Pakistan didn't create dehumanizing language, it definitely exacerbated it -- and took it far beyond prejudicial language or choice insults.

In Pakistan, as I explained in Alden Pyle in Pakistan, Part 1, caste prejudice is a very serious, very dangerous matter. It's an invitation to harassment, gang rape, beatings, and even murder for those Pakistanis who deputize themselves as defenders of caste purity. And in all but the most horrific caste-related crimes, the ones that make national headlines, the government at all levels turns a blind eye to the vigilante justice.

To give you an insight into the double standard, there is a famous Pakistani non-Muslim, a Zoroastrian, who routinely expresses opinions in the Pakistani press that are offensive to conservative Pakistani Muslims. But he gets a pass because he's high caste. On the other hand Pakistan's President (a Muslim) is roundly and vocally despised by many (Muslim) Pakistanis because he married above his caste.

Is there a direct connection between the violence in Pakistani society and the dehumanizing aspect of caste consciousness? Yes; it's not the only connection but it's a significant one.

There's a widespread misconception in Washington that Pakistani-conducted terrorist acts in Indian Kashmir, and the insurgency Pakistanis helped mount against the Russians in Afghanistan, created a violent 'streak' in many Pakistanis.

This view has led to the concern that Pakistan's militants are now turning their violence on Pakistan society in ways that were never done before, and which could lead to all-out civil war. John Batchelor expressed this concern last night.

The terrorist bombings inside Pakistan over the past few years, including the two recent attacks on members of the Ahmadi sect, are misleading as an indicator of whether the society is becoming more violent.

You'd be amazed at how many people can be massacred in a few minutes by five men wielding machetes or gasoline and matches. Pakistan is no more violent today than it was a decade or half century ago. It is an extremely violent society and always has been. All that's changed is that plastic explosives and AK-47s make for more spectacular scenes of carnage.

Murderous violence carried out by 'ordinary' Pakistanis -- those not trained as soldiers or militants -- is made easier because many of the victims are seen as subhuman: above the level of a beast of burden but not fully human. That's what the most rigid form of caste consciousness does: it creates a mental category of subhuman.

So it's not exactly murder in the minds of those steeped in the view -- murder being something done to humans; it's seen as butchering. That's how they can go through life with an untroubled conscience after massacring unarmed people who're their countrymen.

Next question: Even if the society is no more violent than in decades past, can modern weaponry make it easier for civil war to occur on a grand scale in the country?

I'd guess that's a conceivable concern since Pakistan's top generals took a page from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and signified to the society's elite (including Ayatollah Khamanei, the commander of the country's armed forces) that they didn't run things anymore.

Iran's mullahs had always snapped their fingers, as did Pakistan's ruling families, and the militaries jumped through a hoop. Then one day Fido just sat there when told to fetch. Benazir Bhutto had to learn that lesson the hard way -- as did the CIA and MI6 in 2009, when they thought the power of Iran's mullahs combined with street theater and Twitter would be enough to topple Ahmadinejad.

Following that line of reasoning, if civil war on a grand scale is to come to Pakistan, I think it would have to arise from a major split in the country's armed forces, not from hordes of non-state actors wearing suicide vests. I don't think such a split exists at this time.

As to the recent attacks on the Ahmadi mosques (which can't be called mosques in Pakistan because that would be blasphemy). A lot of planning, effort, and money went into mounting the attacks. There has always been considerable prejudice in Pakistan against the Ahmadis but just because these were the first such attacks on the Ahmadis in Pakistan I would not leap to the conclusion that they represent an escalation in sectarian violence.

Instead, I'd look at the location of the Ahmadi mosques. One is in Lahore's old quarter. Lahore is the capital of Punjab province and Pakistan's second largest city. Lahore and environs are seeing hot competition for prime real estate. One of the mosques that was struck is located in Model Town, one of Lahore's most expensive residential suburbs.

Then I'd inquire into local disputes between businesspeople, real estate speculators, business interests among the city's most powerful politicians, etc. And, given today's news, I would try to inquire whether the Ahmadis have been keeping up adequate baksheesh to the local police and politicians.

Today's, news about the confession of a captured terrorist in the attacks raises the question about whether some police officials were involved with the attacks. That makes the very risky attempted rescue of a captured terrorist all the more interesting.

I'd do all that first before I'd assume that religious intolerance or an escalation in sectarian violence was the motive for the attacks.

For readers who are new to the subject of caste in Pakistan I'll again provide the link to a report by Shahbano Aliani, a member of Pakistan's (tiny) Communist Party. The Communists are one of the few groups in the country that are willing to speak publicly about the issue of caste. Because of the code of silence about the topic many Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware that there is caste among Pakistan's Muslims.

The report, titled Caste in Pakistan: The Elephant in the Room, only scratches the surface, but I think it's the best introduction to the topic for the general reader in the West.

The first time I presented the link, in the Alden Pyle in Pakistan post, I stressed that caste in Pakistan shouldn't be confused with 'class' or social station. There is a tendency in Pakistan and among caste apologists to present caste as merely a class or vocational phenomenon. This incident, taken from Shahbano Aliani's report, is not a mere class situation:
A pregnant woman from a remote rural village in Tharparkar goes to a private hospital in Hyderabad. The medical staff refuse to attend to her, saying they do not want to pollute their instruments and dirty their hands.
Low caste in Pakistan does not only mean 'bottom of the social order.' It also means subhuman. And when caste distinctions are rigidly enforced low-caste people are treated as if they're subhuman. Yes, there are laws forbidding this in Pakistan and no, the laws are not enforced in any meaningful fashion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pundita, pakistan is simply evil, to not put too fine a point on it. a religious state is based on the 'otherization' of somebody or the other, and the propagation of hatred. after hindus have been wiped out in pakistan, they now wipe out quasi-mohammedans. next it will be some mohammedan sect. murder is the only answer to the failure of the state to produce the alleged dar-ul-islam or perfect mohammedan state of peace, which of course is a myth. the only reason all the arab states are exactly like pakistan is the gusher of oil money. remove oil from saudi arabia and you get pakistan.

as american psychologist sam keen observes in 'faces of the enemy', it is easy to find scapegoats and demonize them. see also my column at Rediff