Pakistan, the privatised state

Until recently, Pakistan’s most important internal threat was thought to be ethnic or regional, with “separatist” movements in Baluchistan, Sind or the North-West Frontier Province suspected of receiving support from neighbouring countries and crushed ruthlessly. After all, it was this kind of politics that had led to the disintegration of the country in the early 70s with the secession of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh.

Unless they were Shia, however, and thus seen as proxies of Iran, religious forms of protest and even militancy were widely held to pose only a local and certainly not an existential threat for the country. Indeed it is common to think of such groups as clients if not creatures of the state, or at least of some faction within its army and secret service, which are said to use their militants against Pakistan’s domestic and international enemies in covert operations.

In the last two years, however, and as a direct result of the “war on terror”, there have been a series of unprecedented attacks against Pakistan’s military as well as civilian leadership by groups fighting in the name of Islam. Commentators often talk about the state’s loss of control over such outfits, or about their deployment by one faction of the state against another in a kind of turf war where each claims to be acting in the country’s best interests. If true this would mean that the Pakistani state does not in fact exist and has devolved to provide some of the many contending powers that seek to control the country. And this should warn us that by analysing Pakistani politics in terms of who controls whom we end up with all parties being deprived of their integrity. What we need to do then is question all these categories, since the line between public and private has become blurred in them all.

Nothing in Pakistan is what it appears to be. Controlled by the army, the state has no independent existence. The army in its turn is a corporation that owns vast tracts of land, industries and commercial enterprises, of which the military forms only one part. In this respect it is the true descendant of its ancestor, the East India Company, whose mercenary soldiers were also rented out to powers across the region, as Pakistani forces are to Saudi Arabia or the US.

Like Britain’s Indian army, it is also not a national institution, being drawn mostly from a few districts in the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. For their part, the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups no longer speak the language of Islamic revolution or an Islamic state, as had been the case among religious parties for many decades. Instead they behave like private companies or even NGOs, claiming to provide good governance and ethical lifestyles in areas that have been taken over from the state and transformed into militant versions of the model communities and special economic zones that also proliferate in the subcontinent.

Pakistan’s Muslim militants are developing into the analogues of Maoist rebels in India, who also take over certain areas and attack government forces there to provide an alternative but non-governmental form of order. Managing territories within a state without apparently wanting to form a new government suggests a privatised and non-political ideal of governance, one that both Indian Maoists and Pakistani militants seem to espouse. The task before both governments is therefore not to de-politicize but rather bring these groups into the political arena, as India did with Nepal’s Maoists, ensuring their investment in the state by forcing them to take it over.

In Pakistan, however, this task has been made difficult due not to the extent of militant support and firepower, but because institutions of the state appear themselves to have become a set of non-governmental actors like their enemies. In this sense Pakistan is not a failed state so much as the perverse culmination of a more familiar process of privatisation that affects us all.

Faisal Devji, reader in History at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.