Volume 5, No. 3, March 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Challenging the conventional wisdom, this article argues that colonialism never left South Asia as it transformed itself into internal colonialism after independence. Strong shadows of British colonialism can still be seen in the colonial legacies of legal, administrative and economic structures of Pakistan and other South Asian nations. Pakistan’s ruling elites have carved out a unique system to govern and thrive, which has been instrumental in sustaining their power and control during the last 70 years. The postcolonial history of Pakistan narrates dynamics of internal colonialism where a new kind of operational mechanism was introduced to maintain the colonial structure, allowing for a heavy control by the Centre to rule the peripheral areas. An unholy alliance of the landed aristocracy, army and bureaucracy emerged to colonise weaker provinces and communities, their economies, cultures, and languages. The landed aristocracy and army exchanged seats as rulers and the bureaucratic establishment provided legal and administrative support to the alliance as needed. So-called democracy, that was sustained off and on, became subservient to these forces. The history of Pakistan, at the same time, reveals a cultural struggle against this system by intellectuals, writers, and poets. This article discusses internal colonialism as a conceptual framework for postcolonial Pakistan within the broader context of South Asia.
Political developments in postcolonial Pakistan should be viewed within the four historical phases of colonialism, internal colonialism, ad hoc colonialism, and terrorism in South Asia. The colonial period created a socio-cultural, economic and political vacuum in the subcontinent. By breaking down the traditional-communal social order, British imperialism also created an additional class with indigenous skin and colour but a mind of the ruling class. This group became proxy rulers to fill in the gaps where colonial rulers were not available. In their language, lifestyle and behaviour, they became the second line of local rulers with an imperialist mindset. The new administrative, political and economic systems remained as exploitative after independence as they were under the colonial setup. Internal colonialism was introduced by national leaders in the newly liberated nations by making cosmetic changes in the system, not the colonial structure, which remained intact. In the absence of a legitimate electoral process in most South Asian states, except India where it provided stability and legitimacy to rule, the rest of the nation states were still hegemonic in nature. Probably that is why we still see the uneasy ruler-subject relationship in South Asian countries where the masses seem to be in a perennial mode of agitation against their governments while the ruling regimes, most of the time, behave as oppressive rulers. This colonial legacy continues.
Additionally, this internal disarray in the region was further enhanced by the global tug-of-war between the capitalist and communist forces as part of the Cold War, introducing another phenomenon in the region, what I call ‘ad hoc colonialism’. In the current geopolitical circumstances, when a world power militarily occupies a country for a short period, motivated by geopolitical considerations, national interest and economic benefits, ad hoc colonialism becomes a strategy to establish military bases in anticipation of future manoeuvres or increasing political and economic influence. The concept is highly relevant to those world regions where modern-day colonialism continues for achieving military or economic goals through short-term military invasions.
The geopolitical interests of the US and Soviet Union accelerated internal conflicts and further deteriorated economic and social infrastructures of the whole region. The prolonged foreign intervention began when the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the remaining Jihadi groups under different umbrellas, armed with modern weaponry supplied by the US, became a force that led to the formation of another monster in the region, commonly known as the Taliban (Goodson, 1998). These militant groups became so strong that they occupied Afghanistan and ruled it with a draconian hand until another superpower came in to oust them.
This time, it was the US that occupied Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Continuation of this ad hoc colonialism in the region by two world powers for over three decades not only shook Afghanistan, Pakistan and neighbouring countries, it adversely affected the whole South Asia in one way or another. First, it introduced a new wave of terrorism, which was never seen in the region before. Militant forces emerged everywhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who not only targeted NATO and American forces, but also killed innocent citizens and destroyed private property and infrastructural facilities.
This conceptual framework, besides analysing the impact of colonialism in the region, also explains the historical milestones spanning over half a century in post-colonial South Asia. This alternative approach argues that it is the continuation of colonialism, in the form of internal colonialism and then ad hoc colonialism that is still impacting South Asian societies as a major hurdle to democracy, peace, regional integration and development.
Scholars have discussed internal colonialism within racial or ethnic dimensions in the UK, Latin America, the US, Canada, Australia and several European nations where dominant classes and majority groups tend to marginalise native populations and ethnic minorities (Hechter, 1999). The phenomenon, however, works with different dynamics in the former colonies in Asia.
Within the context of South Asia generally and Pakistan specifically, internal colonialism can be defined as a system of hegemony that works directly or indirectly with the patronage of the core within a nation state to exploit the human, economic or natural resources of peripheral regions to bring them under the domination of a powerful central regime. The strong core in the system not only controls peripheral regions politically, it also undermines their cultural, educational, economic and social spheres. It is the strong federal structure in Pakistan that exploits its weaker regions in coordination with the civil-military establishment and the landed aristocracy. Within the system, as Robert Blauner argues, beyond the natural process of contact and acculturation, “Rather, the colonising power carries out a policy which constrains, transforms or destroys indigenous values, orientations, or ways of life” (Blauner, 1969).
Aijaz Ahmad argues that nationalism became the popular ideology to offset imperialism for the newly independent nations after World War II without comprehending the polemics and weaknesses of the concept (Ahmad, 1992). In fact, while nationalism was used as a major ideological thrust against imperialism, internal colonialism was the real strategy used by most rulers in the new nation states, who became agents of advanced capitalism. Internal colonialism in the form of marginalisation of ethnic, cultural or regional minorities, became a predominant mode of governance in South Asia, which still poses a huge challenge to development, peace and democracy in the subcontinent. Here, hegemony over the marginalised communities, mixed with the Centre’s domination over racial, ethnic or religious communities, becomes a major tool for the ruling classes within nation states who try to imitate their former colonial rulers.
The dynamics of internal colonialism in Pakistan, along with growing economic disparities, with variations, in the four provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, gave birth to an unprecedented trail of social unrest, anarchy and cultural discord. New social and economic realities found new avenues of religious, ethnic, geographical and even sectarian divisions. Hamza Alavi argues that it was the salaried Muslim class of India who was in favour of carving out a Muslim state as they were afraid of losing power and control in postcolonial India (Alavi, 1989). These Urdu-speaking bureaucrats became the main ruling class in the early postcolonial Pakistan, but their power considerably decreased as the Punjabi-dominated ruling junta became the main beneficiary of this arrangement. The system of internal colonialism, thus, continued the legacy of the old British bureaucracy in the Indian subcontinent. The colonial structure of tax and tariffs, the legal structure, and the administrative institution of the bureaucracy and military, remained intact in the newly created nation state modelled on the ruler-subject relationship of the colonial period. The subtleties of this ruling structure established hegemony in economic, political, legal, cultural and educational institutions. The new nation state also continued the British legal system, which was efficiently employed to exploit the peripheral areas and marginalise ethnic and religious minorities. The Indo-Saxon legal system was modified to suit the interests of the rulers whenever needed. First, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used the same legal framework to declare the Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslim and then the military dictator Ziaul Haq utilised the same framework to legally cast out the community from the national scene, imposing severe restrictions that limited their participation in business, academic, scientific and other professional fields. As a result, the community was not only declared non-Muslim, their status was reduced to the level of minorities (Ahmed, 2010).
Because the new political system in Pakistan was borrowed from the British rulers, the colonial pattern of the ruler-subject relationship never changed. The Basic Democracy system introduced by the first military dictator General Ayub Khan to use the rural majority against the metropolitan elite was the same strategy the colonialists used in undivided India (Sayeed, 1967). However, it was not only military dictators but also the elected political leaders who behaved like colonial rulers. Bhutto, the popular political leader and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, also brutally suppressed the labour movement of 1972 in Karachi after coming to power (Ali, 2010).
This domination and marginalisation of the peripheries was more vibrant in the cultural domain than any other sector as argued by Langah (2012). In her research on the Seraiki poetic resistance, she talks about the system of lingual hierarchy devised by the colonial rulers. The ruling alliance in Pakistan has also devised a five-tier system of lingual hierarchy assigning a specific role to native languages. In this system, English has assumed the status of a royal language of the brown rulers in postcolonial Pakistan. Although spoken by a small educated class, English not only has become the official language in the federal and provincial governments, it has also become a language of communication for the army, bureaucracy and the educated aristocracy as they speak and write in this language.
Urdu, on the other hand, has become the second-tier language, which has been transformed into a predominant language of most of the middle and lower classes as the national language. On the other hand, major native languages – Sindhi, Balochi, Brahui, Punjabi, Pashto and Seraiki – have been conveniently relegated to third place by downgrading them as ‘regional’ languages, limiting their advancement and influence. These indigenous languages have been marginalised based on the theory that Urdu as the lingua franca has a magical power to unite the nation. Nonetheless, the four native languages represent 77.24 percent of the total population, where Punjabi is spoken by 44.15 percent, Sindhi 14.10 percent, Pashto 15.42 percent and Balochi 3.57 percent of the total population (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2001). Some languages, thought to be ‘insignificant’, have been assigned to the fourth place in this lingual hierarchy as local languages while other ‘irrelevant’ languages, already on the verge of extinction, have been placed at the bottom of this totem pole. About 50-90 local languages are rarely considered relevant. Based on this discussion, the following section offers analysis of the poetic discourse in the major native languages of Pakistan.
Writers and poets who dared to challenge the system of internal colonialism were traumatised and harassed by the state through internment, torture and economic deprivation in the early years of independence.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the popular poet, was arrested in 1951 for ‘plotting’ a coup along with a group of military and civil intellectuals. He was tried for treason with a possibility of the death penalty but later released. Other poets including Habib Jalib, Ahmad Faraz and Ustad Daman were also arrested and harassed for their poetic resistance to civil and military dictators. Excluding the stalwarts like Faiz, Jalib and Faraz, however, it is not the mainstream Urdu verse but the poetic discourse in native languages of Pakistan that exposes the cruelties of internal colonialism in postcolonial Pakistan. Undoubtedly, it is the Sindhi, Pashto, Seraiki, Brahui, Punjabi and Balochi poetry that vigorously and boldly challenged and even rejected the system of internal colonialism. The poetic discourse in these languages offers a unique imagery, metaphorical finesse and fresh lexicon dealing with postmodernist themes depicting societal agitation, miseries of the poor, insensitivities of the ruling elite, and gender issues, both in its manifestation and structure. Besides the poetic resistance against the system at large, each language has its unique poetic expression depicting their specific socio-political environment. These streams widely exist, among others, in the poetry of Sheikh Ayaz, Janbaz Jatoi, Tanveer Abbasi, Imdad Hussaini, Sehar Imdad and Pushpa Vallabh (Sindhi); Hasina Gul, Ghani Khan, Amir Hamza Khan Shinwari and Samandar Khan Samandar (Pashto); Ata Shad and Gul Khan Naseer (Balochi); Noor Khan Mohammad Hassani (Brahui); and Ashiq Buzdar, Mohammad Ayub and Abid Ameeq (Seraiki). Any analysis of the native poetic discourse remains incomplete without discussing the two distinctive thematic streams: a persistent quest for cultural identity and the state as a symbol of oppression.
The province of Punjab, with its demographic majority, economic power and military might (Siddiqa, 2007) is the major beneficiary of internal colonialism in Pakistan. While in the Indian Punjab, land holdings were substantially reduced through reforms after independence, the feudal system is still intact in Pakistan, which is a major ingredient of the recipe for internal colonialism. This social reality emerges again and again in the Punjabi poetry of Pakistan (Rammah, 2006).
The same system, however, also promotes the worst kind of marginalisation of the Punjabi language. The lack of patronage on the part of the government and the social trend of the Punjabi-speaking population to shun their mother tongue have been the two major reasons for this marginalisation (Rammah, 2006). As a result, Punjabi was never recognised as a literary or academic language after independence, which otherwise has a long and rich history of folk and Sufi poetic traditions. The fear of the vanishing mother tongue often appears in the Punjabi poetic discourse. For Mazhar Tirmazi, a known Punjabi poet who lives in London now, winter brings back memories of the motherland where the people “who have no words” becomes a nostalgic reference to his fading mother tongue (Tirmazi, 2004).
Charagh Din, known by his pen name Ustad Daman (1911-1984), was another critic of military dictators and the ruling class of his time through his fearless Punjabi verse. For Zubair Ahmed, “The most persecuted poet was Ustad Daman who was put behind bars not only by the military dictators Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan but also prime minister Z. A. Bhutto.” A common man himself, he opposed corruption and exploitation of the poor throughout his life.
The Seraiki-speaking population in southern Punjab, with its rich literary heritage, considers itself a cultural and linguistic group separate from the rest of Punjab province. Their language has been marginalised at three levels. First, Seraiki as a language has been sidetracked by the state that did not allow its growth at the literary and cultural levels. Second, it became the target of the mainstream Punjabi establishment that does not accept their claim of a separate identity. At the third level, their culture has been exploited by their own landed aristocracy. Against this backdrop, there has been a strong movement demanding to carve out a Seraiki province from Punjab.
The Seraiki poets who became part of the movement and actively integrated this dream into their poetic expression have become immensely popular. Sain Ashiq Buzdar, with his bold manifestation of political discontent against the provincial authority, became a popular poet as part of the movement for the Seraiki province. His poem Asan Qaidi Takht Lahore De (We are Slaves of the Lahore Throne) recreates the capital of the Punjab province as a symbol of oppression (Buzdar, 1986).
Seraiki poetry offers multiple voices of resistance with several themes that include protest against the marginalisation of their language, economic injustice, settlement of native people on their land, bureaucratic exploitation of their resources, and the brutalities of the ruling elite within the broader context of Pakistan, and the demand for a separate province (Tahir, 1995). As part of the movement for a Seraiki province, verse became a protesting voice of the people to demand autonomy and respect for their culture.
While resistance to provincial hegemony remains a significant theme in Seraiki poetry, a profound quest for nationalist identity becomes a prominent theme in the Sindhi poetic discourse, besides other themes such as resistance to the establishment. The Sindhi poetic discourse strives to re-establish the cultural identity that seems to be threatened by the political developments within the Sindh province. The Sindhi language as a medium of early education in schools has been the norm in the Sindh province unlike the other three provinces where Punjabi, Pashto and Balochi never achieved this status. This allowed a comparative growth of their literary activities, journalism and publishing. However, in the wake of a large immigrant population arriving from India after independence, the native Sindhi population became a minority in the two large urban areas of Karachi and Hyderabad (Kennedy, 1991). The fear that their resources and homeland was being invaded by outsiders led to a consistent quest for nationalist identity, which also emerged prominently in their postcolonial literary discourse. Sindhi nationalism was at its height during the Zia dictatorship and resistance to military domination became a forceful metaphor in Sindhi literature. It was the time when “writers and poets like Rehmatullah Manjothi, Naseer Mirza, Tariq Alam, Niaz Hasmayooni and Adal Soomro challenged Zia’s ideological state” (Talbot, 2015).
Against this political backdrop, the Sindhi poetic discourse signifies dissent and resistance to the Pakistani establishment. Shaikh Ayaz (1923-1998), a leading Sindhi writer, always challenged the hegemony of the state for which he was often arrested by military dictators. Not only a short story writer, he was also a prolific Sindhi and Urdu poet who wrote more than 70 volumes of poetry, short stories, memoirs and essays. Imdad Hussaini (born 1940), with his modernistic poetry, became a trendsetter of the Sindhi poetic discourse. His verse added a new chapter to the Sindhi literature where his bold metaphor and new themes gave him a prominent place as a top-notch Sindhi poet. His classic poem “Roots” draws parallels between the worldwide civil rights movements and the struggle in his own motherland of Sindh.
For another Sindhi poet, Pushpa Vallabh (born 1963), darkness and restrictions on freedom of expression become opportunities to find avenues for human freedom. Professionally a physician, she writes poetry in Sindhi, English and Urdu.
From systematic marginalisation to a profound message of hope and equality, the Sindhi verse appears to be in a constant search for ethnic and cultural identity. It boldly challenges the establishment for abrogating the civil rights of the people and marginalising their cultural heritage and history.
As we have seen, both Seraiki and Sindhi verse become a strong voice of their masses who mourn the loss of their nationalistic heritage and resist their cultural annihilation at the same time. For other native languages such as Balochi, Brahui and Pashto, however, the state appears to be a powerful symbol of oppression at several levels.
Balochistan has been the target of military and civil oppression more than any other province in Pakistan. Rich in natural resources, including natural gas and petroleum, the area has witnessed insurgencies in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973, and more recently in 2002. It was General Pervez Musharraf who killed the venerable Baloch leader Akbar Bugti in an air attack in 2006. Since then the movement for autonomy within Pakistan has been transformed into a freedom movement (Fazal, 2012).
The scars of this violent history can be seen in Balochi and Brahui poetry, the two major languages of Balochistan that have been exposing the rulers’ atrocities in prose and verse. This outcry for freedom has also found its way into the poetic discourse of the province. Gul Khan Naseer (1914-1983), a firebrand Baloch nationalist, political leader and activist, was also a revolutionary poet who challenged this onslaught on his people. His long-fought political struggle against the ruling alliance and his daring poetic posture remain a signpost of his literary discourse.
His fiery poetic style and his denunciation of the state apparatus often sent him to jail. One of his poems, “Towering Ramparts” (Arif and Khwaja, 2011) narrates his firm belief that the resistance of the poor can topple the powerful one day.
Ata Shad (1939-1997) was a poet of mass popularity who conveyed the intricate subjectivities of romanticism and social tragedies of his Baloch nation to his audience. Federal policies of internal colonialism have been as strong as their resistance in Balochistan, which is also reflected in the native languages of the province. From Gul Khan Naseer to Ata Shad and Mohammad Hussaini, this poetic protest has been very direct, bold, and intense.
While resistance to the establishment in Balochistan comes with a rebellious tone because of its ongoing insurgency, freedom has also been a hallmark of the Pashto poetic discourse. The Pashto cultural heritage, which revered freedom as one of the most important virtues of their tribal society, opposed British imperialism and later the autocratic rulers after independence. Always suspicious of the Centre, the State becomes a consistent symbol of oppression in the Pashto poetic discourse.
Ghani Khan (1914-1996), who was considered as one of the leading Pashto poets of the 20th century, challenged the system through his poetic discourse. The artistic son of the known activist and leader, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), Ghani was jailed for six years in 1948, just one year after independence, for his political activities and poetry. Besides the romantic strands in the form of ghazals and poems, his politically motivated pieces become satirical odes to ridicule power, powerful leaders, and kings. Expressing his hatred towards the ‘King’ as a symbol of power, the poet contemplates that if you cannot guarantee justice, you should not lead. Later in the poem, he contrasts the luxuries of kingship with the people’s sufferings and poverty. Exposing the moral and intellectual absurdities of leaders, the discourse reflects the poet’s dislike towards politicians and their power play, probably the reason why he left politics in the later part of his life. Pashto and Balochi poetic discourse exposes the intensities of state oppression within different contextual frameworks. While the Balochi poets more often appear to have a rebellious tone reflective of their specific political dynamics, the Pashto poetic discourse invokes the philosophical intricacies of power and powerful leaders in postcolonial Pakistan, along with the gender and social issues of its own society.
Poetry, with its popularity among the literate and illiterate masses in Pakistan, has been a strong tool of resisting the prevailing socio-political structure. As poetic resistance has been a predominant theme from the beginning in the subcontinent, it became a popular voice against powerful emperors and rulers who tried to silence local uprisings through force. Shah Hussain, the Sufi poet of Punjab, along with the freedom fighter Dullah Bhatti, became a symbol of local defiance against the Mughal Empire in the mid-16th to early-17th century. Khushal Khan Khattack (1613-1689), the Pashto warrior-poet, also used his poetry to raise voice against the mighty Mughal Empire of India. Although respected widely by the masses of all faiths, some of the Sufi poets were persecuted for their intellectual resistance to the brutalities of the rulers. Deeply rooted in the folk heritage of native languages, Sufi poetry also became a message of human tranquillity and cultural diversity, mostly in the Sindhi, Punjabi and Seraiki languages. This trend continued during the colonial period when popular poets, who supported the freedom movement, became national heroes. Even after independence, the tradition was sustained as an unrelenting wave of expression challenging the system of internal colonialism in Pakistan.
The above analysis demonstrates strong poetic resistance to the establishment in Pakistan within the two major themes: a consistent quest for cultural identity, and the Pakistani state as a profound symbol of oppression. As we have seen, both Sindhi and Seraiki discourses strove to preserve cultural identities. While the Sindhi discourse represented a struggle to keep their cultural and ethnic identities within the province, the Seraiki discourse reflects a political movement demanding a separate province. Besides these distinctive streams specific to each province, several parallel themes also appeared in the native poetic discourse including resistance to the federal establishment, revolt against military dictatorships, and an outcry against social, cultural, economic, and gender inequalities.
Although it is important to note that resistance has not been the only stream in the native poetry, it has been a prevalent form of poetic expression along with other trends of Sufism, realism and romanticism.
Content wise, while the traditional poetry was limited to romanticism and religious themes, modernist and post-modernist trends are common in the more recent native poetry. Miseries of the poor, small tenants and workers, and gender-based marginalisation are the popular themes of today’s native poetry in Pakistan in addition to the voices of discontent against the feudalistic social order.
Can poetic resistance become a major catalyst for socio-political change in society? The above analysis reveals an interesting scenario within the historical context of Pakistan. It would be wrong to consider the poetic discourse as a catalyst for socio-political change as it can only provide an effective mode of communication from opinion leaders and intellectuals to the masses. Poetry, nevertheless, has its role in raising social and political consciousness among the masses when it becomes part of journalistic, political and activist movements. Poets, however, as part of these movements can also become political activists (Langah, 2012).
Learning from the past, ruling elites have adopted sophisticated tactics. They tend to abide by the constitutional and legal frameworks while the real exploitation comes through selection and exclusion of federal assistance to peripheral regions, administrative policies and economic marginalisation. With the same token, cultural resistance also uses refined tactics for avoiding direct confrontation with the establishment. Thus, the poetic discourse adopts a middle way between direct confrontation with the power structure and passive acceptance of oppression in the Pakistani setting. Although the nature of internal colonialism has not changed much, its strength has been curtailed, thanks to the long struggle at the intellectual, political and journalistic levels. Only the future can tell if these gains can be further sustained and transformed into a more egalitarian, democratic and just society in Pakistan.
After working as faculty, director and assistant dean for several American universities, Dr. Qaisar Abbas currently leads a consulting firm in Washington D.C. on Media Strategies and Grant Development. His research interests are South Asian politics, mass media, and poetic discourse. He has also worked in Pakistan as PTV News Producer, and Information Officer for the government of Punjab.
Excerpted from a longer piece, Cultural Identity and State Oppression: Poetic Resistance to Internal Colonialism in Pakistan
Courtesy Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies, Vol. 6 (2018)