On caste and the Pakistan army


In the banal and mind-numbing backdrop of op-ed pages across the country, Aakar Patel’s recent piece on the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan (Express Tribune: Of Punjab’s partition, castes & martial races) was a refreshing departure from convention. Here’s what Mr Patel had to say about the issue:
“My hypothesis is that the division of the Punjabi nation in 1947 produced a Pakistani Punjab that was heavily weighted in favour of the martial castes. The trading castes, which tend to be more pragmatic and balance society’s extremism mostly left to come to India. This has produced the imbalance which explains Pakistan’s fondness for a state dominated by soldiers. Gen Pervez Kayani runs the state’s foreign policy, security policy and most of its economic policy because the majority of Punjabis are comfortable with the idea of a warrior being in charge.”
Let’s get one thing straight though: this particular line of thinking, i.e. the association of caste with institutional ordering, isn’t new. In fact, it’s been present in the Indian subcontinent since at least the middle of the 19th century.
As the story goes, in the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny, the Empire wanted to re-structure the British Indian Army in a bid to expunge the treacherous Bengalis, and accommodate more loyal segments of society, i.e. the Punjabis. The premise for this ethnic revision, however, was less arbitrary than it sounds, and was actually based on anthropological work done by civil servants of the Raj. Volume upon volume, detailing every characteristic of how major and minor ethnic groups went about their daily lives, what they ate, how they spent their money, what were they good at, and what were their failings. These observations, put together in the shape of district gazetteers, pamphlets, and, in some cases, full book-length publications, ultimately led to the conclusion that some Punjabi tribes, i.e. the martial races (Janjuas, Awans, Ghakkars etc), were best suited for military service.
This is precisely where Aakar Patel’s hypothesis overlaps with historical reality: The British, in their quest for passive consent from the Indians, skewed recruitment patterns to such an extent that 67% of all recruitment was happening in the hill-tracts of what is now Pakistani Punjab. As a stand-alone fact, this particular contingency makes Patel’s theory very believable. Punjab has a militaristic culture, it is the largest province in the country, it has, over time, achieved pre-eminence in the affairs of the state, and hence it organically supports the one institution that it both helps form, and sustain: the army.
All well and good on paper, but unfortunately, this theory falls flat in the face of everything else that’s happened in our 150 year long history. If Patel’s thesis were used to construct a counter-factual narrative, it would have resulted in a number of things.
1) The army would’ve been popular and powerful from the day of independence.
This, as is well recorded, is not true. For starters, Pakistan had terrible military infrastructure in the first decade of independence, and a process of hardware accumulation became possible only after the CEATO-SENTO deals were negotiated with the US by a civilian government.
2) The two-nation theory, based on warrior-like posturing towards India, was a product of the Punjabi imagination.
False. While the two-nation theory is imbibed and perpetuated by a large segment of the society in North and Central Punjab, it was actually championed by the Muhajir bureaucracy in the first 25 years of independence. Ghulam Muhammad, a muhajir accountant, who was the first finance minister of Pakistan, gave a speech on the floor of the constituent assembly extolling the virtues of a powerful army, of diverting the budget towards arms accumulation, and of being prepared to mount a credible defense (and where applicable, effective attack) in the face of an ever-looming Indian threat.
3a) The pre-eminence of Punjabi caste-based militarism limited and, ultimately maligned, capitalistic growth in post-partition Punjab
Also not true. Patel, later on in the piece, cites the case of trading castes in Karachi and Indian Punjab as counter-balancing forces that keep militarism in check. This particular reading of reality completely ignores, well, reality. Pakistani Punjab, despite the large-scale flight of non-Muslim capital in 1947, now sees urbanization at nearly 35 percent, and a provincial GDP that has a greater contribution from trade, retail, transport, and manufacturing than agriculture. The Punjabi trading and artisan castes, Arain, Kashmiri, Sheikhs, Perachas, Lohars etc, not only dominate provincial politics (through parties like the PML-N), they’re also quite keen on having good relations with India.
The basic premise of Aakar Patel’s piece is correct. The military is quite popular in Punjab and in urban Pakistan as a whole, and its role in politics is not looked upon as an indiscretion. But his explanation is essentialist and quite flawed. The real reasons for the army’s popularity are in the historical imbalances created by the ideology of a seceding state, by the exigencies of an aloof, migrant bureaucracy, by the machinations of global powers, by the self-serving accumulation of the armed forces themselves, and most importantly, the 64 year long project of vilifying mass-politics, political parties, and politicians. A project in which, to this day, media and segments of the elite continue to be willing partners.

The writer blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected] or send a tweet @umairjav


    • Correct!

      He was born in Lahore, Punjab, British India, in 1885 (?) and belonged to the Kakazai tribe of Pashtuns…

  1. good one! The problem with "Express Tribune" is that its a club of die-hard left-wingers and considering the fact that Lakahni Group , the McDonald's fame, own it, one cannot help but wonder that the same group runs a right-wing TV channel called Express, a moderate Urdu newspaper and a die-hard leftist newspaper Express Tribune that has seldom cared to give the other side of the story!! The reason is simple! Lakanhis are truly clever Karachi business people! They run a right wing TV channel to keep the establishment happy & let the advertising revenues grow but since when u r too big, u do not wish to be bothered by queuing urself inf US Embassy to get visas, hence to keep the US Embassy in Islamabad happy as well, they have Express Tribune! I am 100 % sure that this newspaper will be in loss since day one but then who cares!!!

  2. Malik Ghulam Muhammad wasn't a punjabi he was a pashtun of kakazai tribe but was born in lahore, anyways the basic point that the writer was trying to highlight still holds, whether muhajir or pashtun he wasn't an ethnic punjabi which is what he wanted to say.

    Aakar patel says that the British created a martial race based army but that doesnt mean that the practice was only applied to Punjab and in paticular muslim punjab. This was applied all over India however since punjab was a frontier province on the western edges of india with threats from expansionist ambitions of Russia and the almost continuous uprisings and revolts by pashtun tribes aswell as afghan wars agaisnt the British, Punjab was the focal point of the british efforts to create a loyal and martial army. One more point that i must highlight is that Punjab at that point also included NWFP hence the heavy presence of pashtuns in the army despite being small in population size compared to Punjabis.

    Sikhs, Marhatas, dogras, rajputs, Jats, Pashtuns, Balochs, and a few others were also part of the so called martial races but there was no mention of them in the Aakar's article.

    Finally i know everyone talks about punjabi army and so on but tbh the castes mentioned by the writes such janjuas, gakhars and awns majority of them are not punjabi rather pothworis as they live in the pothowar region of punjab province with distinct language and culture very different to punjabis so if anything it should be called a pothowari army then a punjabi one.

  3. the original warrior race of the south asian region before arrival of aryans was gond and bheel whom the aryans drove out from their landed possessions and captured their properties; south asia is chiefly land of invaders; therefore there can be no pure race where invading routes criss-rcoss; people have built their own histories – the real one i think is that of khafi khan;

  4. Sad to see such a shallow discussion of caste occuring in today's Pakistan. This is just British racism by another name. The reason the Pakistan military is at the center of Pakistani nation's life is simple: it is a collection of hate-India paranoid and insecure people who know that Baluchistan and Pashtunistan and Sindh should be free independent countries, not colonized by Punjab and only the brutality of the Army can keep the country from spinning apart. Alas, it is not to be. The Pakistani experiment was a failure. A Free Baluchistan will come, sooner rather than later, followed hopefully by a Free Pashtunistan. Then we can all get back to normal life

  5. Hamza Alavi wrote in one of his many influential papers that migrant Nort-Indian Muslims were sole thekedar of two-nation and kept it alive because that provides it the relevance in alien Sindhi and Punjabi land. But the the bulk of bureaucracy comprised Punjabis so Punjabi bureaucracy as well as Punjabi politicians neutralized Muhajirs by adopting Nazria more vehementy which in turn usurped by Punjabi military to keep both bureaucracy and politicians in check. Muhajir realized that the "ace" is now eternally in the hands of Punjab so it grew secualr (my plaudits) in the shape of MQM. MQM sometime keep the rightist narrative but always stops short of going extra mile.

  6. In today's Pakistan army is popular in Punjab because a big part of it is from Punjab. That's a very simple explanation. Punjab adopted two nation theory vehemently I think just because at that time and even today Punjabis have some complexes when it comes to North Indian Mohajirs. True the two nation theory was the need of North-indian Mohajirs but Punjab thought Mohajirs are taking some extra miles on this ground so they showed more zealousness.

  7. Umair Javed I am utterly amazed at coming across such a well reasoned, high calibre, original analysis in a local rag.
    Well done you!
    I will be following your articles from now on. Keep up the good work.

  8. I agree with Muhammad Ali's comments about the pre-eminence of Potohari (or Potwari) tribes in the British Indian Army and subsequently the Pakistan Army. A timely reminder of the difference between Potoharis and the majority of 'southerly' Punjabis as there is current debate about the creation of additional provinces in Pakistan. Potoharis definitely have more in common with their neighbours in Hazara and somewhat AJK.
    At this point in time there are three prominent Potoharis in major positions of power: General Pervez Kiani (Army Chief), Raja Pervez Ashraf (Prime Minister) and Syed Nayyar Bukhari (Chairman of the Senate). As a point of interest the current Indian PM Manmohan Singh and forner Indian PM Gujral are also Potoharis who emigrated to India at the time of creation of Pakistan.
    Although the Potohar region isn't heavily populated it would be worthwhile to maintain its distinctlanguage and culture.
    Interestingly the Awans, Ghakkars (Kianis) and Janjuas in particular have ruled the Potohar region for probably millenia.

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