Is Class Still Destiny in Pakistan ?

El Gouna (Red Sea, Egypt): public transport bu...

El Gouna (Red Sea, Egypt): public transport bus, customised and highly decorated in genuine Pakistani style. Coach built by Chishti Engineering (Karachi) and decorated by S. Gulzar (Karachi). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Khaled Ahmed

Somewhere along the way, Pakistanhas forgotten about its classes and how they are created, especially how certain classes are supposed to be permanently disadvantaged because of their identity. The buzz today is poverty alleviation without much thought to the class structure in which poverty is meant to be alleviated. The general comprehension of how things will sort out economically is restricted to the state’s facilitation of the private sector’s ‘capitalist class’.

Flag map of Pakistan

Flag map of Pakistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That does not mean that there are no classes. In Pakistan, there are identity groups created by the historical process in the rural economy and the relatively recent categories of the working class in the urban economy. A teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Taimur Rahman, has written an impressively learned book on the subject The Class Structure of Pakistan (OUP 2012), which is worth reading for its insights.

His thesis is derived from Hegel’s formulation that ‘the development of history is the result of internal contradictions’, which when applied to society means that these internal contradictions are actually class contradictions as they arise on the basis of the modes of production and class structure. The aim of his book is to examine the dominant mode of production and class structure of Pakistan.

There are insights on the way to the central thesis. He tells us how French social philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755), who belongs in my intellectual pantheon of European minds as someone who posited ‘relativism’ as a vehicle of tolerance, got it wrong with his term ‘oriental despot’. He thought that “whereas the power of the European monarchs was constrained by the Despotic (absolute) power over their courtiers”, the oriental despot ruled without constraints because people living in warm countries were “hot-tempered”. And that France was more suitable for “the development of republican governments”.

Voltaire was, of course, more of a ‘relativist’ when he debunked Montesquieu and opined that although China’s empire was despotic, it was not tyrannical.

In newly-created Pakistan, classes were born out of the pattern of ownership of land. Landlords were few and humanity dependent on land and working for the landlords were myriad. Three per cent owned 30 per cent of the arable land, most of them Rajput and Jat.

In the 1950s, the evolution of class-based communist mind among the rural population was averted by the Harvard Advisory Group positing a high-growth Green Revolution. Land reform failed and the big owners of land were able to duck it, thus keeping intact the pattern of ownership of land that perpetuated the class structure (p 162).

In the countryside, class system is another name for caste system and it changes at a glacial pace: “In a word, the very existence of the caste system is the best proof of Asiatic stagnation” (p 238). One can understand why Pakistani society reacts maniacally to couples marrying by free choice after reading that the rural class system survived by endogamy and Pakistan’s cities are too recent of birth to overcome it: “Caste is nothing but a division of labour that is hereditary” (p 238).

More insights are offered when analysing the lasting angst of Pakistani society: “On the one hand, slavish worship of capitalist modernity; on the other, a search for non-Western identity that inexorably leads to reactionary ideologies. On the one hand, sections of society that are completely Westernised and more at home in London or New York than in Lahore or Karachi; on the other, sections of society opposed to Westernisation and aspiring to re-create an Islamic Khilafat.”

P.S.: The index is not so good.

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

This book review first appeared in The Express Tribune, September 30, 2012. 

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Categories: Books, Opinion

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