Pakistan: Wealth polarisation leads to social tension

Having last visited Pakistan five years ago, the social, economic and political changes in the country were thrown into sharp relief. The changes, although not immediately apparent, are stark. These developments, I believe, make possibilities for the growth of socialist ideas much more likely than in the immediate period of disillusionment and confusion following the military coup in 1999.

Kevin Simpson recently visited Pakistan on behalf of the cwi. Below is his account of the political situation in the country and also of discussions with socialists, trade unionists and youth activists.

Wealth polarisation leads to social tension

Polarisation in wealth is far greater than previously. The levels of poverty even in a relatively developed city like Lahore are much greater than before – as evidenced by the increased numbers begging at crossroads and busy junctions. A soup kitchen set up in one of the main parks in the city feeds thousands of people everyday. All the national newspapers reported that the number of goats and sheep slaughtered for Eid ul Azha [Islamic religious day] were sharply down on previous years because of the levels of poverty. The railway colony [a residential area where most railway workers live] in Lahore has an air of complete decay, demoralisation and grinding poverty. Unlike in 1999, none of the workers’ cafes in the colony serve meat dishes because customers would not be able to afford them. The Musharraf regime has targeted this section of the industrial workforce for attack which has led to catastrophic sackings of particularly union activists.

After Musharraf came to power there was a sharp increase in the pace of privatisation and the rate of price hikes on basic foodstuffs. Many communities in rural areas live on or below starvation levels. The crisis in agriculture is far more pronounced than ever before. The national press is full of articles imploring the government to stop imminent collapse.

However, for some sections of the upper middle and ruling classes living standards have rapidly improved. Economic developments have had important social effects within society. While economic growth is far more tenuous than in India, there are similar effects, although not as pronounced, in Pakistani society.

The military regime stepped up the motorway building programme – there are now fully completed motorways from Lahore to Islamabad and to Faisalabad. Construction has begun on the Islamabad to Peshawar motorway with well publicised plans to extend this to Kabul, once the first stage is finished. These motorways, started under the Nawaz Sharif regime, have been built by Daewoo. They are administered by the civil construction wing of the army, which collect the tolls for the army. However, the main Lahore-Islamabad motorway will take twenty years longer to break-even financially, because of the low traffic levels. Most people still prefer to travel on the trunk road because they can stop where they want along the way to eat and socialise!

The military do not only have financial interests in taking control of the new motorways – there are also important military reasons. For example, at the height of the tension between India and Pakistan, the main Lahore-Islamabad motorway was closed. For a large part of it, the concrete blocks separating the highway were removed and it became a runway for the air force.

The new Lahore airport is completed. The old one used to have poor farmers grazing their cows along the edges of the runways. This one is a modern facility: a new marble lined building similar to many of the airports that dot the Gulf States.

There are noticeably more cars on the streets. Extra Western funding and loans have opened the way to super-profits for some people. Increased corruption means there is greater pressure for laundering “black” money through the official economy.

High profile and expensive infrastructure projects attract foreign investment and play a useful role for the regime in presenting itself as a ‘modernising’ force in Asia. However, these projects camouflage ever increasing levels of poverty for the majority of people. The limited economic development has introduced new stresses and strains in society, even amongst those sections that have generally benefited.

There are increased tensions within the state bureaucracy. Since Musharraf has come to power he has vastly increased the number of military officers drafted in to “run” industry and the civil service. This has led to frictions between army officers and the civilian wing of state administration, which sometimes surfaces in the press.

Increased tensions

Also present are increased tensions within the middle class. Privatisation and the increased penetration of the national economy by the multinationals have led to the enrichment of new layers of the middle class. They have jobs in middle management of these companies, with very good wages by Pakistani standards. The same applies to teachers in the newly privatised colleges. However, sections of the “traditional” middle classes have become impoverished like teachers in the state schools and even lawyers! Amongst these sections of the population there is a sharp increase in radicalisation.

The minimal development in certain sectors of the economy has lead to quite a sharp increase in the numbers of women employed in the large cities, particularly in Lahore. In the textile industry levels of female employment have reached over 40% and in some factories they are in a majority. As a result there are more women seen in public. Young women particularly, are more confident than they were previously, although it is important to stress this is a relative development.

Large infrastructure projects, the enrichment of the elite, and the increased domination of the economy by the multinationals, while poverty spirals, have led to a huge increase in anger and desperation. Hatred of the multinationals and imperialism is tangible. CWI members explained that it was now dangerous for US tourists/ visitors to travel on their own even in big cities. Many people sharply expressed their anger about the West for stealing the country’s wealth, and against Musharraf for being complicit in this robbery.

The development of new technology has encouraged quite important – though ultimately reversible under certain conditions – social changes. Mobile phones are now everywhere. The clearest example of combined and unequal development in the neo-colonial world, I have ever seen, was the sight of a tanga [donkey-drawn wooden cart] driver using the latest Nokia mobile phone while riding along one of Lahore’s main streets.

The microwave telecommunication system (which five years ago used to be the main infrastructure for the telephone system and television) has been mothballed. All television and phone systems in urban areas are now run off a cable network. CWI members explained that all working class families have access to cable TV in the cities, either in their own homes or in tea cafes in local working class neighbourhoods. Previously most cable stations were illegal but the new government accepted the reality of their increased permeation throughout society and instead issued licenses for them, from which the government have accrued big revenues.

The Islamic Fundamentalists attempted to get the cable TV licenses cancelled for being “un-Islamic” but then promptly withdrew their demand as a result of the public outcry. Instead they were granted a license for their own cable channel! As well as Western TV channels, people also receive all the Indian, Chinese and Russian ones, as well. There are Asian-based cable channels showing programmes which in a distorted way raise broader political issues. For example, the HBO Asia channel, on March 8, had a full day’s coverage on International Women’s Day. The same is done for Mayday.

It is clear that some of the economic changes would not have happened so quickly without the military being in power. They have the advantage of being able to pressurise a divided capitalist class (with the threat of force, if necessary) to implement change, even if it affects the wealth of some.

One example of this is the stamping out of corruption on the railways. When I was last in Pakistan it was almost impossible to get a railway ticket. Porters working in conjunction with station masters used to hold all tickets and sell them on the black market at exorbitant prices. The military stopped this and forced through the computerisation of ticketing on the railways (Obviously this does not mean that the military have reformed themselves; the level of corruption and the enrichment of a layer of senior army officers has leapt forward).

This process, on one side, and the increasing poverty on the other, has encouraged the class divide in the army. Previously this was not so developed because recruits for the army used to come from a few rural areas. However, in the last few years, the number of working class youth recruited from the urban areas has climbed. There is now a far more pronounced hatred of the senior officers amongst the ranks, which is given an added edge by the anti-imperialist mood in society – it is widely known in the army that all forms of military protocol are based on methods introduced by the British army during colonial times.

The increased access to international news – even though filtered through reactionary news channels – has accentuated a marked growth in consciousness about world events amongst quite wide layers of young people. What was particularly striking were the reports from CWI members about the radicalisation amongst young people and an interest amongst the more politically conscious to discuss international issues as opposed to what is going on in Pakistan.

Youth Radicalisation

Fakhar, an 18 year-old student explained that most of his friends hated the generals, the mullahs and big business men and there was a relatively developed class consciousness.

The greater political openness in society is also partially reflected in the media. This goes quite far sometimes. One national newspaper, the Daily News, every week or fortnight, prints excerpts from left and Marxist writings. While I was there, part of Lenin’s State and Revolution was reproduced. It is not therefore surprising that Musharraf launches frequent attacks on most of the national press but obviously he does not feel confident enough to implement widespread censorship.

Whilst in day-to-day life the military keeps in the background, it would be completely wrong to draw the conclusion that the regime is an open, ‘liberal’ one. Faced with a mortal threat there is no doubt they would strike back brutally. However, it is true that this regime is qualitatively different from that of Zia-ul Haq [a brutal military dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977-88]. The main reason for this is that Musharraf does not have the same base of support as previous dictators. As a result, the regime is much more careful and specific about whom it attacks. Any determined movement of the working class in a number of the main cities could lead to a crisis for the military, and its possible overthrow. This is not the most likely perspective in the short term, given the vacuum on the left, the weakness of the trade unions and the partial atomisation of the working class.

Thus Musharraf walks a tightrope balancing against intense and contending pressures. The pressures acting on Musharraf were demonstrated in the recent nuclear proliferation scandal which unfolded in a dramatic way during my visit. It has become clear that there was never any possibility that US imperialism would impose sanctions as a result of the passing on of nuclear secrets under the conditions that existed. However, Musharraf used this fear to consolidate support amongst the military hawks (who believe in a strong army and funding for it but are generally against participation in politics) and to hit out against the Islamic fundamentalist wing of the army.

The national TV press conference on the proliferation, called by Musharraf, was the stuff of high drama. He spoke for an hour and a half and then took questions from the national and international press. Characteristically, as he always does when facing a crisis, Musharraf came out very forcibly with a clear line of argument and action. Prior to the press conference, sympathetic journalists wrote articles accusing Khan [the previous head of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and sacked from his job for selling nuclear secrets to foreign powers] of selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets for huge payoffs. While he made great play of the necessity to stand up to “international terrorism” and against nuclear proliferation, Musharraf was extremely critical of those in the West who he claimed applied double standards to Pakistan on nuclear weapons and proliferation.

A Reuters journalist asked Musharraf whether he would accede to demands “of the international community” for the release of all documents concerning the interrogation of nuclear scientists; an independent inquiry in Pakistan to discover how the proliferation occurred; and full UN inspection of all Pakistani weapons sites. Musharraf replied, “No to all three demands”. He then went on to accuse the West of demanding an openness which they themselves were not prepared to accept. He lectured the audience on the sovereign nature of Pakistan and the fact that the rest of the world would have to accept Pakistan as a nuclear power and treat it on equal basis as others with the same capability. This argument was designed to appease public anger at the anti-Muslim propaganda in the Western press but it was also designed to mollify the military hawks, as well.

This incident demonstrates how Musharraf, up to now, has been able to tread a fine line between putting forward a position in which he uses nationalist rhetoric to camouflage acceding to US wishes on one side, and endeavouring to isolate Islamic Fundamentalist forces in society on the other side. However, workers are not hoodwinked by this, but Musharraf can get away with this at the moment because of the lack of a workers’ or even radical national alternative to his rule. It is also clear that the President is increasingly worried by the assassination threats [which have taken place over the last few months] on his life. His relative isolation within the military and in society is demonstrated by his decision to build a totally new General Headquarters for army command in Islamabad where it is believed his life will be safer.

Political Islam

The opposition Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) did attempt to make gains out of Musharraf’s “crack-down” on Khan by calling for a nationwide “shutter down” strike of small businesses. There was a very limited response to this. Apart from their supporters, the MMA has failed to build a significant base of support in society.

The Inter Service Intelligence [Pakistan’s secret service agency linked to the army] in Pakistan undoubtedly funnelled major resources into the MMA in the run-up to the last elections, hoping to use it as a balancing force against Musharraf. However, they were almost too successful. The ISI miscalculated the collapse in support for nationalist formations in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province. But the collapse in support for the MMA in these areas shows that its level of support in the elections was mainly a protest vote against incumbents. Disappointment with the Provincial MMA governments has increased sharply because social and economic conditions have sharply worsened in these areas – as they have in the rest of the country.

Newspaper analysts blame the falling fortunes of the MMA on the death of the leader of the Alliance. This has led to complaints by the smaller parties in the Alliance that all decision-making is in the hands of the two largest formations within it. However, these are not the fundamental causes. The strains within the MMA have come about because of its failure to fulfil its election pledges and also because of the deal it did with Musharraf to support a vote of confidence in him as President.

However, the failure of the MMA to significantly increase its support is indicative of wider processes concerning the growth in support for right-wing political Islam. The MMA called many demonstrations at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Whilst some of these demos were sizeable, they did not correspond to the level of anti-US feeling in society at the time. The reason for this is that, certainly in the urban areas, there were fears of supporting parties that were linked with the Taleban.

There has not been a growth in support for right-wing political Islam amongst wide layers in society. There has been a growth in identification with Islam generally but it would be incorrect to mistakenly interpret this. Amongst the rural and urban dispossessed and amongst some layers of the middle class, there has been an increase is support for these ideas. But there has also been a reaction against these ideas (as has already been explained) amongst young people. There has also been a reaction amongst more middle class mullahs in cities like Lahore. Here a group of young mullahs has come out openly and presents itself as a modern and liberal wing of Islam – with most of its members wearing Western clothing. This group regularly has meetings in Jinnah gardens in Lahore.


The objective situation amongst the working class and poor peasantry is more favourable than in the first couple of years after the military coup. The lack of large communist parties or ex-left parties means that the vacuum is particularly pronounced and opens up opportunities for building the CWI if the work is done correctly. Despite this, the levels of poverty, the psychology of layers of the working class that seek individual solutions to the problems they face, as well as the lack of the traditions of an established workers’ movement do mean there are significant obstacles to be overcome. However, the economic and social tensions outlined above indicate that explosive movements are likely to occur particularly amongst the youth. The most important conclusion to draw is that despite the partial growth in support for Islamic fundamentalist ideas, there are quite important layers of young people and workers open to the ideas of socialism.

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March 2004