The Provinces



Lahore – the ancient whore, the handmaiden of dimly remembered Hindu kings, the courtesan of Moghul emperors – bedecked and bejewelled, savaged by marauding hordes – healed by the caressing hands of successive lovers. A little shoddy, as Qasim saw her, like an attractive but ageing concubine, ready to bestow surprising delights on those who cared to court her – proudly displaying royal gifts.

(Bapsi Sidhwa)1


Unlike India, Pakistan has one province – Punjab – which with almost 56 per cent of the population can to a certain extent dominate the country. No Indian province comes anywhere near this in terms of relative weight – though if all the Hindi-speaking states worked together as a bloc they would approach Punjab’s weight in Pakistan. Punjab also provides most of the army, and without Punjabi support no military government of Pakistan would be possible.

Yet at the same time, whatever the other ethnicities may sometimes allege, Punjab is not nearly strong or united enough to create a real ‘Punjabi Raj’ over the whole country, an effective, permanent national regime based on Punjabi identity. Pakistan is in this, as in other ways, more like India than immediately appears.

India is held together as a democracy (or at least a constitutional system, since Indian administration often does not work in ways that the West thinks of as ‘democratic’) in large part precisely because it is so big and varied. Many years ago, I asked an Indian general if he and his colleagues ever thought of creating a military dictatorship, as in Pakistan. ‘We’re not that stupid,’ he replied.

Democracy in India is a damned mess, but it gives the system the flexibility it needs to survive. It means that rebels who can’t be killed can always be bought off by being elected to government, and given jobs and favours for their relatives. This country is so big and so varied and so naturally chaotic, if you tried to introduce an efficient dictatorship in India it would actually destroy India within a year.

If you emphasize the word ‘efficient’ and add the word ‘Punjabi’, then the same is true of Pakistan. No national government can simply crush the warlike, heavily armed Pathans. All have preferred instead to co-opt them through service in the army and bureaucracy, and into government through elections. The Pathan territories of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have always been administered overwhelmingly by ethnic Pathan officials. Nor can any Punjab-based regime dream of ruling over the megalopolis of Karachi, with all its rival ethnicities, by simple dictatorial means. There too, co-option and compromise are essential. So while Pakistan’s Punjabi core makes it different from India, and more susceptible to dictatorship, it is like enough to India to make sure that its dictatorships can’t work in an effectively dictatorial manner.

So the balance between the provinces also forms part of what I have called Pakistan’s ‘negotiated state’. There is a real element of Punjabi dominance, but fear of breaking up the country on which Punjab itself depends means that this dominance always has to be veiled and qualified by compromises with the other provinces. Thus in 2009 – 10, in a considerable achievement for Pakistani democracy and the PPP government, the centre and the provinces agreed on a new national finance award rebalancing revenue allocation in favour of the poorer and more thinly populated provinces. Punjab, with some 56 per cent of the population and around 65 per cent of the revenue generation, was allocated 51.74 per cent of revenue.2

Sometimes, however, these compromises are damaging not only to Punjab’s interests but to those of Pakistan as a whole. For example, it is absolutely essential for Pakistan to develop greater, more reliable and more ecologically responsible sources of electricity. It is now more than fifty years since the idea of a great hydroelectric dam at Kalabagh on the Indus was first mooted. The site is eminently suitable as far as hydroelectricity is concerned; yet for that entire half-century the project has been stymied by opposition from the NWFP and Sindh, which fear that they would lose water to Punjabi industry. And that has continued to be the case through no fewer than three periods of military rule, the project decried by provincial nationalists as expressions of Punjabi dominance!

More than ten years after immense coal reserves were discovered beneath the Thar desert in Sindh, as of 2009 plans to develop them were still in limbo because of disagreements between the Sindh and federal governments, and because the federal government was both unwilling and constitutionally unable to impose its will on Sindh, for fear of splitting the Pakistan People’s Party and creating a new surge of Sindhi nationalism. But this was not only a problem of civilian rule. Musharraf in his nine years in government also failed to push through this project. In this way, Pakistan’s delicate ethnic balance, and the endless negotiations it entails, contribute to the sluggish pace of Pakistan’s development.

On the other hand, the maintenance of this balance has helped ensure that with the exception of some of the Baloch, who think that they would do well on the strength of their gas and mineral reserves, very few political or intellectual groups in Pakistan and Pakistan’s provinces actually want to break the country up, whether because they are genuinely attached to it (in the army, the bureaucracy and much of the Punjab); because they hope to take it over and use it as a base for a wider programme (the Islamists); because they are afraid of Indian domination (Punjabis); because they are afraid that Pakistan’s break-up would lead to a dreadful civil war with other ethnicities (the Sindhis and Mohajirs, and even the Pathans, since the Hindko-speaking minority in the NWFP is strongly opposed to Pathan nationalism); or simply because the alternative looks so much worse (the Pathans, when they look across the border into Afghanistan). So one of the biggest factors holding Pakistan together is fear.

However, it isn’t the only factor by any manner of means. The different ‘ethnic’ groups of Pakistan are often very intermingled, to the point where the standard definitions of ethnicities or nationalities within Pakistan sometimes seem almost as artificial as Pakistan itself. Thus Sindhis, Pathans and Baloch complain frequently of Punjabi domination, especially under military rule; yet the army, or at least the other ranks, have until recently not represented ‘Punjab’ at all, but rather the Potwar plateau, half a dozen districts in the north-west of Punjab, bordering on the North West Frontier Province – the same area from where the British recruited their soldiers. Some other parts of Punjab have been almost as poorly represented in the military as Sindh.

For that matter, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan are in their way also ‘artificial’. It is a mistake to see them as Czechs, Hungarians or Poles under Habsburg rule, increasingly self-conscious nations with an earlier history of nationhood, which with the collapse of the empire easily formed national states. Linguists dispute how many different dialects of Punjabi there are, but certainly Seraiki, in the southern third of Punjab, could just as well be a language in its own right. The Baloch for their part, while having some kind of ethnic unity with a common tribal code, are divided into two completely different languages, one of them descended from the Dravidian of southern India, presumed to be the language of the Indus Valley civilization 4,000 years ago.

And linguistic divisions are not the most important ones. Particular religious allegiance counts for as much; still more do endless combinations of family, clan and lineage. Like the Sayyids, these often trace their ancestry back to somewhere else, whether in legend or fact. Even where the Rajputs came from originally is not known. As the eighteenth-century Indian Muslim reformist theologian Shah Waliullah stated proudly of his Sayyid ancestry,

I hail from a foreign country. My forebears came to India as immigrants. I am proud of my Arab origin and my knowledge of Arabic, for both of these bring a person close to the ‘Master of the Ancients and Moderns’, the ‘most excellent of the prophets sent by God’, and ‘the pride of all creation’. In gratitude for this great favour I ought to conform to the habits and customs of the early Arabs and the Prophet as much as I can, and abstain from the customs of the Turks and the habits of the Indians.3

As far as personal pride and identity are concerned, to be a Sayyid usually comprehensively trumps being a Punjabi or a Sindhi.

Many of the great landowning families of Sindh and southern Punjab are the descendants of Baloch tribesmen who conquered the local peasantry centuries ago, still speak Baloch at home, and owe allegiance to saints whose following is as widely spread as the Baloch tribal migrations which shaped these local societies.

As for the Pathans, as will be described in Chapter 10, though they have a very strong ethnic identity, their deep and rivalrous tribal allegiances and their division between Pakistan and Afghanistan mean that they have never been able to turn this into a strong modern nationalism – something in which they resemble certain other tribal ethnicities such as the Somalis.

Finally, Karachi, the country’s greatest city, is itself a major source of unity, since it includes not only indigenous Sindhis and Mohajirs from India, but also huge populations of Punjabis and Pathans. In fact, Karachi is the third largest Pathan city after Kabul and Peshawar, and probably the fourth or fifth largest Punjabi city. More Baloch may live in Karachi than live in Balochistan. These different populations in Karachi often loathe each other, but they also depend on the city for their livelihoods, and their more responsible (or self-interested) leaders and the businessmen who fund them do not want to destroy those livelihoods for the sake of nationalist dreams.

In Europe, the USA and Japan during the nineteenth century it was above all the modern state education system that deliberately created a sense of nationhood among the ordinary people of these countries, most of whom had previously had little sense of belonging to any identity beyond their village, region, local religious allegiance and kinship group.4 In Pakistan, state education barely reaches most of the population; and education in the religious schools or madrasahs obviously influences people more to a sense of being part of the universal Muslim world community or Ummah than to a sense of being Pakistanis – just as the Church schools of medieval Europe were designed to turn boys into Catholics, not into Germans or French.

But then none of the different bits of Pakistan’s education system is designed to make children into Sindhis or Punjabis either. So it would probably be wrong to see Pakistan as necessarily following a classical Western course in this matter, or to assume that because Pakistan’s national identity is weak, other, inherently stronger identities are waiting in the wings to break the country up.

Rather, therefore, than an early disintegration, the greatest threat would once again seem to be that long-term ecological degradation – especially in the area of water resources – will over time so increase tensions between different regions, and so reduce the ability of the regional elites to contain these tensions, that national government becomes unworkable. By this stage the situation may have become so bad that effective provincial government will also be unworkable.


In the case of Punjab, not only the great majority of the Punjabi establishment but a great many ordinary Punjabis identify their provincial identity with that of Pakistan as a whole; and this identification is one of the things which makes writing about Punjabi identity and Punjabi attitudes to Pakistan so difficult. Apart from the fact that there are simply so many more Punjabis than others, and of more varied kinds, the identities of most of Pakistan’s other nationalities are to a considerable extent shaped by their differences with the Punjabis (except for the Mohajirs), and their ambiguous relationship with the Pakistani state.

Many Punjabis, by contrast, believe that they are the state, and if they define themselves against anybody else, it is against India. An adviser to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif with whom I spoke in January 2009 was unabashed in his declaration that ‘if anything is ever to get done in Pakistan, Punjab has to take the lead. We determine the direction of Pakistan.’ As a senior official (of Mohajir origin) remarked sourly, ‘The difficulty about writing on Punjab as a province is that they think and behave as if they are the whole damn country.’ This Punjabi commitment to Pakistani nationalism has profoundly shaped Pakistan, and is indeed responsible for Pakistan’s survival as a state. And the overthrow of that state can never happen in peripheral areas such as Waziristan, Balochistan or even Karachi. It would have to happen in Punjab.

One sign of Punjabi commitment to Pakistan, to the point in some cases almost of submersion in Pakistan, is that (in sharp contrast both to the other Pakistani provinces and to Indian Punjab), Pakistani Punjab has not been committed to the development of Punjabi as a provincial language. Instead, successive state governments have promoted the national language, Urdu, as the language of education and administration throughout Punjab. Urdu is also far more prevalent in society. Whereas Sindhis and Pathans almost always speak Sindhi and Pashto among themselves, educated Punjabis usually speak Urdu with each other, when they are not speaking English.

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the great Urdu poet, philosopher and prophet of Indian Muslim nationhood, came from Sialkot in western Punjab. Pakistan’s two greatest writers, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto, were both Punjabis (albeit in Manto’s case from a Kashmiri family) but both wrote mainly in Urdu. Punjab’s finest writer of the present day, Daniyal Mueenuddin, writes in English.

So while Punjabi dialects continue to be spoken at home and there is a rich and living folklore in Punjabi, almost all public life is conducted in Urdu or English. The spread of Urdu is also encouraged by Pakistani television, by the Pakistani cinema (‘Lollywood’, because based in Lahore) and indeed by the passionately beloved Indian cinema from Bollywood, which uses Hindi – and despite assiduous nationalist efforts in both India and Pakistan to change the languages, spoken Hindi and Urdu remain basically the same language.

Much older influences than Pakistani nationalism are also at work here. Although quite distant from the Urdu-speaking heartland of the old Mughal empire, Punjab was still far more culturally affected by it than were Sindh or the Pathan areas. Equally importantly, Punjabi is not in fact the language of large parts of Punjab – or even of most of it, depending on how you define ‘Punjabi’.

According to a traditional Punjabi statement, ‘Language changes every 15 miles’ – just as it did in Europe until the rise of modern mass education and entertainment in the nineteenth century. So ‘Punjabi’ is itself broken up into numerous dialects. Meanwhile, people in most of the southern third of Punjab, from Multan down to the Sindh border, speak a completely different language, Seraiki, which while related to Punjabi is closer in some respects to Sindhi.

A movement for a separate Seraiki-speaking province has existed for many years, but has never got anywhere much. One reason for this is the entrenched opposition of the Punjab establishment, backed by the fear of national governments in Islamabad of the appalling can of worms which such a move might open (a new Mohajir demand for a separate province of Karachi leading to fresh Mohajir – Sindhi violence, for starters).

Probably even more important is the fact that the Seraiki-speaking area also contains numerous other dialects, or languages (like Haryani) which might be part of Punjabi, Seraiki, Urdu, Sindhi – all or none of them. Until 1955, much of southern Punjab was covered by the former autonomous princely state of Bahawalpur, many of whose inhabitants continue proudly to claim their own special identity, and even that they speak their own language separate from Seraiki. Other identities also cut across the Punjabi – Seraiki divide: these include religious affiliation (whether of the different Sunni sects, Shiism or the following of a particular saint) and wider kinship group (Jat, Rajput, etc.).

Many Seraiki-speakers are in fact by origin from Baloch tribes. How for example is one to define former President Sardar Farooq Khan Leghari in terms of identity? Is he a Punjabi (the province where his clan holds its land); a Seraiki (by language); a Baloch (by ethnic descent and tribal identification); a Punjabi-speaking Pathan (by marriage); a Pakistani (having worked as a Pakistani official, spent most of his life in national politics and ended as president of Pakistan); or, at bottom and perhaps most importantly of all, hereditary chieftain of his branch of the Leghari tribe? So ‘Punjab’ contains numerous overlapping identities, in a way that helps heavily to qualify ‘Punjabi’ dominance over Pakistan as a whole.


For a land which cradled one of the very first human urban civilizations, Pakistan is remarkably lacking in historic cities, and even those that do exist often have few historic monuments. What war has spared, the rivers have often destroyed, either by washing away cities or by changing course and leaving them isolated and waterless.

The great exception is Lahore, ancient capital of Punjab. The old city of Lahore contains one of the greatest Mughal mosques, and one of their greatest forts, as well as a host of lesser monuments, including the tombs of both Sultan Qutb-ud-Din Aybakh (died 1210 CE), founder of the Muslim ‘Slave Dynasty’ which ruled from Delhi, and of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Lahore also contains some of the greatest monuments of British rule in the former Indian empire.

In fact, Lahore looks and feels much more like the capital of a major state than does Islamabad – and in the view of Pakistan’s non-Punjabi ethnicities Lahore also often behaves that way. It is some ten times the size of Islamabad, and Pakistan’s largest city by far after Karachi – just as the province of Punjab is home to almost 56 per cent of Pakistan’s population (more than 100 million people) and forms its industrial, agricultural and military core. Punjabis on average are considerably richer than the inhabitants of the other provinces (though, as will be seen, with huge regional variations within Punjab). In Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP, more than half the population is listed as being below the poverty line. In Punjab, the figure is around one-quarter. If Pakistan is to be broken from within by Islamist revolt, then it is in Punjab that this would have to happen, not among the Pathans of the Frontier; for Pakistan is the heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan. Indeed, in the view of many of its inhabitants, it is Pakistan.

As described in Chapter 6, the old Punjab elites (themselves often not so old, having been in many cases the product of British land grants) have been greatly changed in recent decades by the entry of very large numbers of ‘new men’ into their ranks. However, these new families have frequently intermarried with old families from the same ‘castes’, and some of those old families also retain considerable wealth and, more importantly, great local power through the leadership of their clans and kinship networks, or the inheritance of shrines and religious prestige.

This can give Punjabi politics a united and clannish air, and covering Punjabi elections in the company of well-born and well-connected Punjabi journalists can be a bit like attending a family party, albeit a pretty quarrelsome one: ‘Will Booby or Janoo get the family seat this time, do you think? Will Bunty get a ministry at last? And isn’t it soooo sad about Puphi Aunty’s marriage?’5

The participants and household members do not even necessarily have to be human. During my last visit, I listened as a great Punjabi aristocratic and political lady conducted an impassioned phone conversation about Punjab politics. I was increasingly bewildered by the fact that not only did the conversation keep switching between English and Urdu, but an increasing number of horses seemed to be wandering into it along with the name of the Chief Minister and other leading Punjabi politicians. When my hostess got off the phone, I asked her if she was planning to make one of her horses Chief Minister. That would be an excellent idea, she laughed, but no, the conversation had been about something much more important – the composition of the Board of the Lahore Race Course.

At its worst (which is admittedly much of the time), Lahore high society is all too close to the ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’, the weekly satirical column by Moni Mohsin in the Friday Times, which she has put together in a book of the same name.6 Though brilliantly funny, this column is in a way quite unnecessary, because the picture of this society which appears on the society pages of the Friday Times and its sister publications is in fact beyond parody.

For the absolute epitome, the non plus ultra of this set (in Karachi as well as Lahore), readers might want to buy a book of portraits of society figures by the society and fashion photographer Tapu Javeri, entitled – in pretentiously lower case - i voyeur: going places with haute noblesse, and decorated with captions to portraits like ‘on the sperm of the moment’. This is the hard-partying world portrayed in Mohsin Ali’s brilliant, grim novel Moth Smoke.

However, at its best, there is also in Lahore a mixture of elegance and intelligence which could make it one of the great cities of the world (if they could only fix the roads, the drains, the public transport, the pollution, the housing of most of the population, the electricity supply, the police ...). The Lahore museum, with its magnificent Buddhist and Mughal works of art, is the only museum in Pakistan of international stature, and casts the rather sad Pakistani National Museum in Karachi into the shade.

This was the ‘Wonder House’ of Kipling’s Kim, which famously begins with Kim perched on the great cannon, Zam Zama, in the road outside the museum, of which Kipling’s father was the curator. Kipling worked for a Lahore newspaper, and some of his finest stories are set in Lahore, as are those of many of Pakistan’s greatest writers and poets. Lahore is a city of the imagination, in a way that bureaucratic Islamabad and dour, impoverished Peshawar cannot be, and Karachi has not yet had the time to become (though writers like Kamila Shamsie are working on it).The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is in parts at least the best university not only in Pakistan, but in South Asia.

Most unusually for Pakistan, which as a society exemplifies the principle of ‘private affluence and public squalor’, Lahore, although it contains some fairly awful slums, also has some fine public gardens, though admittedly ones bequeathed by the Mughals in the case of the Shalamar Gardens, and the British in the case of the Lawrence Gardens (now Jinnah Bagh). Strolling through the Jinnah Bagh in September 2008 on my way from breakfast with friends in a stylish and charming café called ‘Coffee Tea and Company’ to visit a modern art gallery, past uniformed schoolchildren, girls in brightly coloured shelwar kameezes like parrots tossing balls to each other, and neatly dressed middle-class couples, I reflected on the idiocy of portraying Pakistan as a ‘failed state’. It was hardly a scene reminiscent of Grozny or Mogadishu.

The contrast was all the greater with Peshawar, which I had just left, and where the sense of threat from the Pakistani Taleban was palpable. Indeed, it was sometimes difficult to remember that Peshawar and Lahore were in the same country. I remember my shock – and then amusement at my shock – on seeing what I first took to be a fattish Pathan boy in a Pathan cap and jeans on the back of a motorcycle in Lahore – only to realize that it was in fact a girl; which in Peshawar would be a truly dangerous combination, and in other Pathan areas a potentially fatal one.

Then again, you could say that my reflections on the success and stability of Lahore were only the result of my becoming lahorized (or perhaps lahorified, to rhyme with glorified), because this is very much the way that the Lahore elites feel, and for many years it led them into a very dangerous complacency vis-à-vis the militant threat.

With the exception of some journalists, most of my Lahore elite friends did indeed treat developments in the Pathan areas as if they were happening in a different country a long way off. This was still apparent even in January 2009, despite serious terrorist attacks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. By July 2009, however, this complacency had been shattered by major attacks in Lahore itself, on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the police academy. Many more have followed. However, as this book has been at pains to point out, terrorism and insurgency are two very different things. Terrorist attacks can do great damage to Pakistan, but to overthrow the state would require an immense spread of the rebellions which broke out in some of the Pathan areas between 2001 and 2009. Above all, to seize power in Pakistan, Islamist militancy would have to seize Lahore.

During my visits to Lahore in 2007 – 2009, I was deeply worried by the lack of support among the mass of the population for tough action against the Pakistani Taleban – even in July 2009, by which time opinion in the elites had shifted very significantly. On the other hand, I could not find much significant support on the streets for the Taleban’s actual programme of Islamist revolution, even among the poor and the lower middle classes, the social heartland of Islamist radicalism in Punjab.

In January 2009, during the holiday which marks the festival of Moharram, I strolled across the park surrounding the Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument to Pakistan’s independence next to the Old City, mingling with the crowds and talking to people of different classes (from rickshaw drivers to members of the middle classes, but excluding the elite) about their views of their government, the economic situation, the Pakistani Taleban, the war in Afghanistan and anything else that they wanted to talk to me about.

This was a time when anti-Western feeling in Pakistan was running even higher than usual, owing to the Israeli attack on Gaza; and, as I have remarked elsewhere in this book, while it is difficult enough to argue with anti-Western Pakistanis when they are in the wrong, it is even more difficult to do so when they are in the right. So as might have been expected, I came in for a great deal of impassioned and radical-sounding rhetoric. Support for a military offensive against the Pakistani Taleban was extremely weak, and sympathy for the Afghan Taleban’s fight against the ‘US occupation’ of Afghanistan was universal.

Habib, an old scooter-driver, declared to murmurs of approval from the other drivers that,

The military should stop fighting against the Taleban in Swat and Bajaur. We are all Muslims after all. The Taleban are just trying to spread real Islam and bring peace and justice, and I don’t know why the army is trying to stop them. All over the world Muslims are under attack from the Jews and Americans, in Palestine, Afghanistan, everywhere. The Taleban are right to fight them.

Every single person I spoke with opposed Pakistani help to America in Afghanistan. Asghar, an educated, English-speaking youth in a baseball cap, declared, to the applause of his friends:

We have two opinions in our society: the government, which is for America, and the people, who are against America. How can any Muslim support US policies when they are helping Israel kill innocent Muslims? That is why the Taleban are carrying out terrorism in Pakistan, because of this gap between the government and the people. So we all think that the government should negotiate with the Taleban to end this conflict.

That said, a couple of serious qualifications need to be entered. The first is that in the great majority of cases people only started talking about the Taleban and the fight against them when I mentioned these themes (this was one thing which had changed by July, when Lahore had already come in for terrorist attacks). If I only asked what they were most concerned about, the overwhelming majority started talking about inflation and jobs.

The other thing worth pointing out is that at no stage in the course of that morning did I feel the slightest concern for my own safety, except from the cricket balls, which were whizzing in all directions from the dozens of informal and anarchical cricket matches that were going on and that clearly interested most of the young men present far more than my questions. Even when one group of kids started chanting Taleban slogans, there was an air of clowning for the camera about the proceedings, and the chanting was accompanied by an offer of a soft drink ‘because you are our guest and it is so dusty here’. By contrast, in a crowd like that in some of the Pathan areas, I would have had real reason to worry that I might have been beheaded and my head used as the ball.

If there is no revolutionary mood among the masses in the heartland of Punjab, revolution also seems highly unlikely in the face of the power of Punjab’s entwined landowning, business, military and bureaucratic elites, and the deep traditionalism of most of the population. Nevertheless, Punjab has also long been home to very strong strains of Islamic revivalism. The headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s greatest Muslim preaching organization, is in Raiwind, 20 miles to the south-west of Lahore. The Tabligh have always stressed their peaceful and apolitical nature; but 10 miles to the north-west of Lahore is Muridke, the headquarters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, mother organization to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which played a leading role in the jihad against India in Kashmir, and carried out the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

For reasons that have deep roots in history, militant groups – and especially LeT/JuD – do have widespread support in Punjab, at least when they attack the Indians in Kashmir or the West in Afghanistan. Their popularity has been one factor in discouraging the Pakistani state from attacking them in turn, lest they join with the Pakistani Taleban. From 2008 on, some of these groups did just that, and started to launch terrorist attacks in the very heart of Pakistan. These attacks are unlikely to destroy the Pakistani state, but they can do terrible damage, and perhaps force the state either to compromise with the militants, or to adopt ferocious measures of repression in order to crush them.


Punjab is panch aab, the ‘Land of the Five Rivers’: the Indus, and its four great tributaries, the Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. As its name suggests, the northern parts of the province at least have a degree of geographic and historical unity, reflected in the Punjabi language. The southern parts of Punjab were converted to Islam, beginning more than 1,000 years ago (largely by Sufi preachers). Thereafter the region was usually ruled by Muslim rulers based elsewhere, mostly in Delhi, but sometimes in Afghanistan or even Persia.

The only Punjabi state to rule over the whole of Punjab was that of the Sikhs, a radical movement within Hinduism that (although heavily influenced by both Islamic monotheism and local Muslim Sufi traditions) arose in reaction against Muslim rule in the late sixteenth century. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Sikhs conquered more and more of Punjab from the decaying Mughal empire, and under their greatest ruler, Ranjit Singh (ruled 1801 – 1839), united the whole of Punjab, including Multan to the south, in one state. However, some 60 per cent of Ranjit Singh’s subjects were Muslims.

After Ranjit Singh’s death, the British conquered Punjab in two wars in the 1840s. These saw some of the hardest-fought battles the British ever had to undertake in India; yet, by a curious paradox, the Punjab was to become the heartland of British military recruitment in the Indian empire, with results for the state and society that have profoundly shaped the whole of Pakistan to this day, and provide some of the foundations for military power in Pakistan.

As related in Chapter 5 on the military, the British created a powerful synthesis of modern Western military organization with local traditions, and underpinned this with a system of land grants to reward loyal soldiers and recruiters. The British military system was entwined with the vast irrigation projects started in central Punjab by the British; the new ‘canal colonies’, in what had formerly been wasteland, were intended not only greatly to increase food production (which they did) but to provide both men and horses to the British Indian army.


1. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan


2. Field Marshal Mohammed Ayub Khan, military ruler 1958 – 69


3. Surrender of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, Dhaka, 16 December 1971


4. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister 1971 – 77


5. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, military ruler 1977 – 88


6. Pakistani soldiers on the Siachen Glacier, Kashmir, August 2002


7. Asif Ali Zardari (left) and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, with the portrait of the late Benazir Bhutto (2007)


8. Benazir Bhutto (1989)


9. Poster of the Bhutto-Zardari family (2010)


10. Nawaz Sharif (left) and Shahbaz Sharif (2008)


11. General Pervez Musharraf (right), military ruler 1999 – 2008, with US Vice-President Dick Cheney, Islamabad, 26 February 2007


12. General Ashfaq Kayani, Chief of the Army Staff, November 2007


13. President Asif Ali Zardari with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (centre) of Iran and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan (left), Tehran, 24 May 2009


14. MQM women activists with pictures of Altaf Hussain (2007)


15. MQM Rally in Karachi (2007)


16. The aftermath of the suicide attack by the Pakistani Taleban on the Lahore High Court, 10 January 2008


17. A demonstrator with a placard of Osama bin Laden, Karachi, 7 October 2001


18. A demonstration in support of the Afghan Taleban, Karachi, 26 October 2001


19. Jamaat Islami demonstrating in Peshawar against US drone attacks, 16 May 2008


20. Mahsud tribesmen meet for a jirga to discuss US drone attacks, Tank, 20 April 2009


21. Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan, October 2009


22. A terrorist attack in Peshawar, 5 December 2008


23. Destruction caused by the floods in Azalkhel, NWFP, 9 August 2010


24. A terrorist attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai, India, November 2008: the aftermath of the attack on the railway station


25. Muslim Khan, Pakistani Taleban spokesman, Swat, 28 March 2009


26. Pakistani Taleban supporters celebrate promulgation of the Nizam-e-Adl agreement, Swat, 16 April 2009


27. A Taleban patrol in Swat, April 2009


28. Pakistani soldiers on guard in Swat, September 2009


29. Hakimullah Mahsud, Amir (leader) of the Pakistani Taleban, Orakzai Tribal Agency, 9 February 2010


30. A victim of a suicide bombing, Kohat, 7 September 2010

The development of electoral politics from the 1880s led to political mobilization along religious lines. There were periodic explosions of communal violence, such as the riots in Rawalpindi in 1926 over the building of a cinema next to a mosque. However, British patronage, common agrarian interests and fear of communal violence meant that until the very last years of British rule, Punjab politics was dominated by the Unionist Party, which brought together Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landowners and their rural followers.

As independence approached in 1945 – 7, the Unionists collapsed under the triple blows of Muslim League agitation for Pakistan, Sikh agitation for a Sikh-dominated province or even independent state (something that was to resurface in the Sikh extremist rebellion against India in the 1980s), and the refusal of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress to accept a confederal India with a semi-independent position for Punjab. Exacerbated by the haste of the British withdrawal, and some perverse decisions by the Radcliffe boundary commission, the result was the appalling bloodletting that gripped the province after March 1947, and resulted in a crescendo of violence in the weeks following independence and partition in August.

In the resulting massacres on both sides, between 200,000 and 1 million people lost their lives in Punjab and Bengal (modern scholarship tends to support the lower figure), and more than 7.5 million Punjabis became refugees. The human cost is commemorated in innumerable memoirs and writings, including the greatest piece of fiction yet to come from Pakistan, Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto. Lahore, which had been in the middle of the northern belt of Sikh and British Punjab, was left almost on the Indian frontier – something which has contributed to its inhabitants’ obsession with the Indian threat. In the 1965 war the Indians came close to capturing the city.

The ethnic impact of the migration from India on Pakistani Punjab was far less than on Sindh, where the migrants came from completely different parts of the British Indian empire – in Punjab, refugees were settled among fellow Punjabis. The scale of the movement however was immense. Out of the more than 7.25 million people who moved from India to Pakistan, 5.28 million moved from east (Indian) to west (Pakistani) Punjab. After 1947, these refugees made up just over 25 per cent of the population of Pakistani Punjab, one of the highest proportions of refugees in an area in recorded history.

This forced migration built on already existing Punjabi traditions of peaceful economic migration to develop new land and new businesses, which already under the British had taken hundreds of thousands of Punjabis to settle in the new canal colonies of Sindh (which were created in the 1930s, two generations after those of Punjab) and to work as shopkeepers and artisans in Balochistan. From the 1950s on, these traditions took hundreds of thousands more to the terraced houses of Leeds, Leicester and Oxford.

The east Punjabi refugees of 1947 brought two things with them to their new homes in west Punjab (mostly homes and lands abandoned by fleeing Hindus and Sikhs). The first was relative economic and social dynamism created by the shock to their old settled ways. Because they moved to another part of the same province, and en masse as whole village communities, the element of disruption was less than in the case of the Mohajirs in Sindh.

Nonetheless, the experience of being uprooted, and the consequent undermining of the old landowning elites, meant that the Punjabi migrants also were to some extent shaken out of their old patterns. Those who were unable to find land in the countryside settled in the cities, entering new trades and professions. This strengthened the element of independence and egalitarianism already present in some of the northern Punjabi castes – especially the Jats, who like to say of themselves, ‘The Jats bow the knee only to themselves and God.’

The other thing that the refugees naturally contributed was a particularly intense hatred and fear of India, which remains far stronger in Punjab than in Sindh or the NWFP – just as on the other side of the new border, Hindu refugees from west Punjab came to play an especially important role in anti-Muslim politics. This fear has helped strengthen the refugees’ identification with Pakistan, and therefore that of Punjab as a whole. Of the educated Punjabi migrants, a high proportion joined the officer corps. They played a particularly prominent role under General Zia-ul-Haq – himself from Jullundur in east Punjab, like his ISI commander, General Akhtar Rehman. A majority of the leadership of the violently anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Islamist militant group (now allied in revolt with the Pakistani Taleban) have also been from east Punjab.

The refugees therefore played a vital role in creating what Abida Husain has called, with some exaggeration, ‘Pakistan’s Prussian Bible Belt’: that is to say, the combination of tendencies towards economic dynamism, social mobility, militarist nationalism and Islamist chauvinism to be found in northern and central Punjab.

These tendencies, and the overall impact of the refugees, have been qualified however by much older traditions in Punjab, a mixture exemplified by the city of Lahore. As noted, the headquarters of Islamist radical groups are close to the city. The main headquarters of the Jamaat Islami party, Mansura, is in one of Lahore’s suburbs. Yet Lahore also contains numerous shrines of saints, including one of the greatest not only in Pakistan but in South Asia, Data Ganj Baksh, the object of a Taleban terrorist attack on 1 July 2010.

Data Ganj Baksh (original name Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery) was an eleventh-century Sufi preacher from Ghazni in Afghanistan who played a key part in converting people in northern Punjab to Islam. His shrine became famous for miracles, and for many centuries he has been the most beloved of Lahore’s many saints. ‘He is our very own link with God,’ I was told by Mukhtar, a worshipper at the shrine from Mianwali in western Punjab near the border with the NWFP.

However, the shrine now looks much less like an ancient inner-city shrine than it did when I first visited it in the 1980s. Then, like most old shrines, it was surrounded by houses, and you approached its gate through a narrow crowded lane. The buildings of the mosque dated back to Mughal times and were far too small for all the worshippers from Lahore’s immensely expanded population. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, therefore, when Nawaz Sharif was chief minister of Punjab, he rebuilt the shrine at immense cost, including the creation of a strikingly modernist mosque by a Turkish architect, an underground parking lot, and a huge forecourt on the edge of a main road, to create which several streets of houses had to be bought up and demolished.

This says something very interesting about overlapping Punjabi identities and the relationship between religion and politics. Like many traditional Punjabi commercial families, the Sharifs are by origin Kashmiris who moved to Punjab centuries ago. In 1947, they migrated from east Punjab to Lahore, where Nawaz Sharif was born in 1949. Partly from older family tradition, and partly perhaps because of the impact of migration, Nawaz Sharif’s father joined the Ahl-e-Hadith, a religious tradition with strong Wahabi leanings. This is an affiliation which later strengthened, and was strengthened by, Sharif ties to Saudi Arabia, where Nawaz Sharif’s father went into business after Z. A. Bhutto nationalized his industries in the 1970s, and where Nawaz took refuge after being overthrown by Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif therefore has been widely suspected of sympathies with radical Islamist theology.

However – presumably in order to consolidate their position in their new home, Lahore – Nawaz Sharif’s family married him to a girl from a leading Kashmiri family of Lahore’s Old City. In a reflection of this Old City culture, Kulsum Sharif is the niece of Bohlu Pehlewan, an Indian wrestling champion before partition. Like most of the old Kashmiri families of Lahore, her family are by tradition Barelvi Sunnis, and followers of Lahore’s saints and especially of Data Ganj Baksh. In a sign of the way that allegiance to the saints often cuts across sectarian divides, she named their two sons Hassan and Hussain – the two greatest names of the Shia tradition.

It may be assumed, therefore, that Mrs Sharif and her family had some impact on Nawaz Sharif’s decision to spend a fortune (admittedly of state money) rebuilding the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh. A political calculation was also no doubt involved – the desire to increase Muslim League support among the saint’s followers in Lahore and elsewhere. In an amusing example of jumping on the bandwagon (or possibly Mr Sharif trying to kill two birds with one stone), followers of another, modern Lahori Sufi saint (mentioned in Chapter 4), Hafiz Iqbal, claimed that their saint was actually responsible because he appeared to Mr Sharif in a dream and told him to help his brother Data Ganj Baksh.

Whether this story was initiated by Hafiz Iqbal’s followers in order to appeal to the Sharifs, or the Sharifs in order to appeal to Hafiz Iqbal’s followers, I cannot say (nor of course would I wish for one moment to discount the idea that saints could in principle appear to Mr Sharif). The point however is that religion and politics are deeply intertwined in Lahore – but in ways that often cut clean across what at first sight are people’s formal religious affiliations.

Another famous example of a Punjabi, and especially Lahori, tradition that spans religious divides is that of the Basant festival (from the Sanskrit word for spring), which takes place in February. This Hindu festival is supposed to have been incorporated into popular Muslim practice by medieval Sufi saints. It is celebrated in Lahore and elsewhere in Punjab by the flying of a multitude of brightly coloured kites.

In consequence, Basant is naturally hated by the puritan reformers of the Deobandi and Wahabi traditions. However, official moves in recent years to restrict the celebration of Basant have been mainly due to a different, rather depressing cause, namely, the tradition of coating the strings of kites with ground glass, so as to cut the strings of rival kites. Every year, a number of people (especially children) are killed or injured when cut strings fall back to earth, or when they bring down electricity wires.


Geographically and economically, one can divide Punjab into three main regions (though blurring together at the edges and with numerous sub-divisions within them). The first, north-central Punjab, contains Lahore, the old agricultural areas along the rivers, and most of the new canal colonies created by the British. It has Punjab’s (and Pakistan’s) most productive agriculture, which also benefited more than any other area of Pakistan from the ‘Green Revolution’. In the first half of the 1960s, agricultural growth in the main canal colony districts of Faisalabad, Multan and Montgomery (Sahiwal) increased by 8.9 per cent a year, and these three districts alone came to account for almost half of Punjab’s entire agricultural production.7

Although water shortages today pose a growing and possibly even existential threat to Pakistan, it should be remembered that, as the canal colonies demonstrate, water is also something in connection with which men in the past have achieved great triumphs in this region. This was true not only of the original construction of the canals by the British, but also of their tremendous extension by the new Pakistani state in the 1950s. This included, among other things, the construction of the Tarbela reservoir and dam, the largest earth-filled dam in the world.

Finally, when in the 1960s the canals began to produce a crisis of waterlogging and salination in the canal colony areas, the state took quite effective action to drain the land, improve the efficiency of the canals and limit over-use of water. Salination is still a problem in parts of Punjab and Sindh, but it is a limited one – unlike the over-use of aquifers, which if it continues unchecked will render parts of Pakistan uninhabitable. These past achievements are another sign that Pakistan is not the hopeless case that it is so often made out to be. What it achieved once it can achieve again, given leadership, a recognition of the problem, and a little help from its friends. Whereas in the past Pakistan and especially Punjab were well ahead among developing countries in terms of water storage, in recent decades both have fallen behind badly as a result of under-investment and political wrangling over dam construction.

As of 2004, Pakistan had only 150 cubic metres of water storage capacity per inhabitant, compared to 2,200 cubic metres in China. The contruction of small earthen dams to trap rainwater has improved the situation somewhat in the years since then, but Pakistan is still far behind India in water storage, let alone China and the developed world.8

The farmers of the canal colonies have for more than a hundred years demonstrated their versatility and commercial drive. This was shown again by the speed with which they adopted many of the techniques of the Green Revolution. It should in principle, therefore, be possible to get them to adopt more water-efficient ways of growing crops. The problem is that this would almost certainly require them to be pushed towards water efficiency by water-pricing – and this is such a politically explosive subject that no government, civilian or military, has so far been willing to touch it. Nonetheless, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, at least once people begin to see real agricultural disasters starting to develop elsewhere as a result of water shortages.

Alongside Lahore, the central region contains Punjab’s greatest industries, centred on the textile centre of Faisalabad (founded by the British as Lyallpur) and other cities. The importance of the great ‘feudal’ landowning families in this region has been greatly reduced in recent decades, and its politics are dominated by smaller landowners and new families risen through commercial success or (corrupt) government service. This region is closely linked to Kashmir, from where the families of many urban Punjabis (including the Sharif family) originally migrated. This has helped cement the commitment of many people in this region to the struggle against India in Kashmir. Punjabi speakers from Pakistani Kashmir also dominate the Pakistani diaspora in Britain.

The second region is the Potwar (or Potohar) plateau of north-west Punjab, extending from the Salt range of hills to the Indus River and the Pathan lands, which have exerted a strong cultural influence here. A good many of the Potwari-speaking inhabitants of this region are in fact from originally Pathan tribes, like the ancestors of the cricketer-politician Imran Khan Niazi, but consider themselves to be Punjabis. This is an area of poor, arid soil which the canal colonies did not reach. As in Balochistan and parts of Sindh and the NWFP, in much of the Potwar region the water table is dropping rapidly because of both excessive and inefficient use by agriculture, and the booming needs of the mushrooming twin cities of Islamabad – Rawalpindi. Water shortages in turn are driving farmers off the land to swell these urban populations still further. This is at present a low-level, undramatic movement, but its importance in worsening living standards should not be underestimated – as anyone who has seen Pakistani rural women carrying containers of water for long distances in the heat of summer can easily appreciate.

The Potwar region has few great landowners but numerous landowning clans, with bigger farmers exercising leadership – a development encouraged by past land reforms, which led landowners to split their lands between different members of their families. This marks a difference from central and southern Punjab, where (as in Britain) landowners tried to keep their estates in the hands of one son, and put other sons into the army, the civil service or business. Politics here is no longer ‘feudal’, but it is still critically dependent on kinship and leadership within kinship groups.

Owing to the poverty of its soil, the Potwar region has long exported its labour in one way or another. The British recruited most of their Muslim soldiers from the Potwar area, and until recently a large majority of the Pakistani army was also recruited from these few districts. The strong Pathan influence in this region has created concerns that Taleban influence could spread here from the NWFP. This could undermine the willingness to fight of the ordinary jawan (young man), or even in the worst case lead to mutiny. A great many people from this region are working in the Gulf, and the remittances that they send home help support the region economically and increase their families’ independence from local landowners.

The biggest city of the region is Rawalpindi, which now has more than three million people but was a tiny village until the British developed it as their military headquarters to cover the Afghan frontier (though it is close to the site of another city erased by war, the great Gandharan Buddhist centre of Taxila). The choice of this region by Ayub Khan for his new capital, Islamabad, reflected its better climate but also no doubt a desire to base the capital in an area with solid military ties.

The third great Punjabi region is the south. This area overlaps but is not identical with the Seraiki-speaking belt, and in certain ways includes parts of central Punjab such as Jhang. It is defined more by cultural and economic patterns than by language. With a much smaller share of the canal colonies, the south was less affected by the greater social mobility and economic dynamism they brought in their train, and also received relatively fewer refugees from east Punjab. It also contains fewer egalitarian Jats than the northern and central parts of Punjab, and more Baloch, with their traditional deference to their autocratic chieftains.

In consequence, southern Punjab is far more ‘feudal’ than the north, in ways that connect it culturally to Sindh. Also linking this region to Sindh is the very strong tradition of worshipping saints and shrines, in many cases the base for great ‘feudal’ families of hereditary saints, or pirs. The shrines bind together many local Sunnis with the Shia, who have a major presence in this region. However, this presence, and especially the high proportion of the local ‘feudals’ who are Shia, has also helped stir up some bitter sectarian chauvinism against the local Shia.

Given all these divisions within Punjab itself, can one really speak of Punjabi domination of Pakistan, or of a Punjabi identity as such? The answer is less than the other provinces like to claim, but more than the Punjabis themselves like to pretend. To a great extent, of course, there is no establishment conspiracy about Punjab’s domination of Pakistan – with some 56 per cent of the population and some 75 per cent of the industry, it naturally outweighs the other provinces, just as England naturally dominates the United Kingdom. This industry is no longer only limited to textiles and food processing. Sialkot is a major international centre of sports goods and somewhat weirdly (but presumably by extension through bladders) of bagpipes. Gujrat produces high-quality shoes and medium-quality electrical goods. No industries of this scale and sophistication exist in any of Pakistan’s other provinces, with the obvious exception of the city of Karachi.

When representatives of other provinces denounce Punjab for its 55 per cent quota of official jobs, they conveniently forget that this is actually slightly less than Punjab’s share of the population, just as, following the seventh National Finance Commission Award of 2010, Punjab’s share of state revenues is considerably below its share both of population and of revenue generation. The great majority of Pakistan’s national leaders (including three out of four of its military rulers) have not been Punjabis. A widespread opinion exists among the Punjabi elites that the province is in fact ‘leaning over backwards’ to accommodate the other provinces, even at the cost of both Punjabi and national development.

This feeling in Punjab contributes to support in the province for the Sharifs and the Muslim League. As one of the Muslim League’s leaders told me in November 1988, after the elections in which the PPP had won power in Islamabad and the IJI alliance (led by the Muslim League) in Lahore:

There has been a tremendous growth in provincial awareness in Punjab. The province is looking for its own leader. This is necessary to balance the other provinces, which in the past have blackmailed Punjab – ‘if you do not give us more water we will break up Pakistan’ and so on. We are 62 per cent of the population of Pakistan, but have only a 45 per cent share of jobs in the state services. We have taken the role of a generous uncle to the other provinces.9

On the other hand, the leader in question was Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain of Gujrat; and, after Musharraf’s coup against Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999, Chaudhury Shujaat and his brother, Chaudhury Pervez Elahi, abandoned the Sharifs to join Musharraf’s administration and take over the government of Punjab themselves. So, as always in Pakistan, collective identities (whether provincial, ethnic, religious or whatever) are constantly being trumped by personal and family loyalties and ambitions.

If the Punjabi elites functioned as a united whole with a common agenda, then they certainly could dominate Pakistan absolutely for a while; but as the sensible ones realize, in the long run they would also destroy Pakistan, because of the furious resentment this would cause in the other provinces. There is little likelihood of this happening, because, as the previous account of Punjab’s divisions should suggest, the Punjabi elites are themselves very divided, and have very different agendas.

There does seem to be a sort of loose community of sentiment favouring Punjab among many senior Punjabi army officers and bureaucrats – though one which is endlessly cut across by personal and political ties and ambitions, and by considerations of qaum (community) and religious affiliation. As a senior official in Islamabad told me:

You have to argue twice as hard to push through any project in one of the other provinces; and if I want to push through a project to help a city in one of the other provinces, I always have to be careful to balance it with one helping a Punjabi city; but it doesn’t work the other way round. Any Sindhi-based national government has to lean over backwards to show that it is not disadvantaging the Punjab in any way.

Concerning official jobs, according to the quota Punjabis have less than their proportion of the population, but they are over-represented in the senior jobs. That is partly because they are better educated on average – and that also means that they dominate the merit-based entry and the quota for women.

He also said that I should be aware that he is a Mohajir, and therefore possibly biased himself.

The closest Pakistan came to a united Punjabi establishment was under Zia-ul-Haq, when a Punjabi military ruler created a Punjab-based national political party under a Punjabi industrialist (Nawaz Sharif). However, the alliance between the military and the PML(N) frayed in the 1990s and collapsed completely when General Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999. Since then, relations have been at best extremely distrustful.

In turn, there are deep differences between northern Punjabi industrialists (who tend to support either the PML(N) or military regimes), and southern Punjabi ‘feudals’ (who tend towards the PPP). Punjabi industrialists, however, cannot dominate military regimes, as witness their failure to achieve their infrastructure and energy needs under both Zia and Musharraf. Finally, the Muslim religious leaders in Punjab are so fractured along theological, political, personal and regional lines that it does not make sense to speak of them as an establishment at all.

Punjabis from north-central Punjab certainly feel superior to the other nationalities in Pakistan, and this feeling – of which the others are well aware – helps to keep ethnic relations in a permanent state of mild tension. The Punjabis from these regions are quite convinced (and it must be said, with good reason) that they are harder working, better organized and more dynamic than anyone else in Pakistan except the Mohajirs; and while Punjabis respect Mohajirs, since the latter are not farmers they cannot really be fully fitted into the traditional Punjabi view of the world (as a very unkind saying about the Punjabi Jats has it: ‘Other peoples have culture. The Jats have agri-culture’).

For the Sindhis, Punjabis tend to feel a rather amused and tolerant contempt, as for pleasant and easy-going but lazy younger relatives. For the Baloch there is contempt without the tolerance, as primitive tribesmen sponging off Punjabi charity. For the Pathans, however, Punjabi sentiments are very different, in ways that may have an effect on their attitudes to the Taleban and the war in Afghanistan.

Punjabis believe (once again with good reason) that they are more modern and economically dynamic than the Pathans. Yet in Punjabi Muslim culture there is also an ingrained cultural and historical respect for the Muslim pastoral warriors who repeatedly swept across Punjab from Afghanistan, and from whom many Punjabis – especially in the upper classes – are or claim to be descended; and the Pathans, however savage, are widely seen as Muslim warriors par excellence, whose prowess has been celebrated in Pakistani literature and propaganda in all the modern wars from Kashmir to Afghanistan.

This identification with the pastoral tradition gives rise to the public and formal (as opposed to private and familial) eating habits of the Punjabis, including in hotels and restaurants; a tradition whereby the green vegetable is almost a publicly persecuted species: part of a heroic effort by a people of mainly bean-eating sedentary farmers to portray themselves to visitors, each other and most of all themselves as meateating nomadic herdsmen.10

However, the fact that Pathan armies also repeatedly raped, looted and burned their way across Punjab (contributing to the province’s lack of historic cities) makes this Punjabi respect for Pathans a somewhat wary one. As a Punjabi lady acquaintance said to me of the Afghan Mujahidin back in 1988: ‘I know they are very brave people, fighting for their country against the great Russian army and so on, but I must say I’m glad they are based in Peshawar, not Lahore.’ Or as an old southern Punjabi proverb used to have it: ‘The son of a Pathan is sometimes a devil, sometimes a demon.’


Driving in Punjab can be a slightly surreal experience. Magnificent (but usually almost empty) new motorways coexist with the same old potholed two-lane ‘highways’, where the SUVs of the wealthy jostle perilously with the bullock carts and camels of the poor. The motorways are patrolled by the astonishingly honest and efficient national motorway police. The other roads are patrolled (or rather not) by the same old Punjab police.

The same element of surrealism goes for the contrasting sights along the road. Driving to Faisalabad from Multan in the evening, we passed mile after mile of primeval-looking mud villages, with the occasional electric light illuminating some home or roadside stall. My need to stop and retire behind a tree became increasingly urgent, but my driver would not permit it. ‘No stop here sir, here very bad people. Baloch, dacoits.’ Just as I was preparing to throw myself from the car and into the arms of any bandits who might happen to be passing, a mirage came into sight, blazing with lights like a solitary fairground in a desert: ‘Welcome to Paris CNG Station’ it said, and offered not merely gas, but a business centre with fax and e-mail and a lavatory with flush toilets.

Business and administration in Faisalabad are rather the same. Faisalabad is the Punjabi industrial and migrant city par excellence, at the heart of the canal colonies; and by many indices is Pakistan’s most modern and successful city. With a GDP in 2005 of $27 billion (according to Price Waterhouse Cooper) Faisalabad has the third highest GDP in the country after Karachi and Lahore, and the second in terms of per capita production and income; it vies with Karachi for the reputation of having Pakistan’s most efficient municipal administration, without Karachi’s feral ethnic politics; and it is the heart of Pakistan’s biggest export industry, that of textiles.

However, every time you begin to think that you really are visiting ‘the Manchester of the East’, you are apt to be brought back with a thump to the realities of kinship-based politics, dysfunctional administration, ineffective law, irrational economic policies, mass illiteracy, obscurantist mass culture, and media and academia addled with lunatic conspiracy theories, and (in the case of the English-medium institutions) often barely understanding the language in which they operate. If Faisalabad is clear evidence of Pakistan not failing as a state, it is certainly not evidence that Pakistan is ever going to succeed as one.

Faisalabad earned its proud title of ‘Manchester of the East’ when Manchester, England, was still the textile capital of the West; and its self-image has a certain nineteenth-century utilitarianism about it. In talking with me, Faisalabadis used the word ‘practical’ so often to describe themselves and their city that it was easy to think oneself in the world of industrial England in the age of Dickens; especially, it must be said, given the living conditions of the working class.

Literacy in Faisalabad is still between 40 and 50 per cent according to the city government. This is a grotesque figure for a city and region that hopes to become an industrial giant of Asia, and one that reflects both the historic failings of repeated Pakistani and Punjabi governments and the cultural attitudes of the local population – above all when it comes to education for women.

Faisalabad was founded in 1880 as Lyallpur, and named after the then British Governor of the Punjab. It was renamed Faisalabad in 1977 after the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who had displayed considerable generosity to Pakistan. Like the town of Montgomery (now Sahiwal) to the south, it was created by the British as the commercial and administrative centre of one of their new canal colonies, on what had previously been an almost uninhabited area of arid jungle and semi-desert. Patches of this still remain, where either the canals never reached or salination has destroyed the land’s fertility again.

The original town was laid out in the shape of a Union Jack, with streets radiating from a central clock-tower, in a sort of Victorian gothicsaracenic style. In 1902 it still only had 9,000 people, but thereafter the growth of commercial farming and cotton cultivation, South Asia’s great tradition of textile production, and the settlement of east Punjabi refugees after 1947 led to explosive growth. Today, the city has almost 3 million people and the district more than 5 million – and, being Faisalabad, these statistics may even be accurate. A large proportion of the population – some say a majority – are east Punjabis who replaced local Hindus and Sikhs who fled in 1947. Faisalabad is therefore, partly at least, another example of the economic dynamism of these migrants, even while it also reflects their cultural conservatism.

Faisalabad’s municipal government is home to a strategic policy unit, the only effective city institution of its kind (so far as I know) outside Karachi, the leaders of which seemed models of efficiency and dedication. With the help of GHK, a British-based public policy consultancy, and assistance (now alas ended) from the British Department for International Development (DIFID), the unit has developed a number of new projects to revolutionize the city’s administration and provision of services. Its work is based largely on a mixture of satellite imaging of the district backed by an intensive programme of local inspection. As a result, for the first time the government is developing an accurate picture of the city, the spread of population, the provision of services, and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, as Gul Hafeez Khokar of GHK told me, it is now possible at the click of a mouse to see whether a planned road or school has actually been built or not: ‘This is a check on corruption, because the city government can now check immediately whether a planned road has been built, or the money stolen. And on the other hand, if it has been built, then it doesn’t need to be commissioned all over again – something that happens all the time in Pakistan.’

The digital map will allow more efficient provision of services, and hopefully prevent disasters like that of 2007 in a Faisalabad slum when local community pressure on the politicians led to the city government increasing the flow through water pipes to the area. Because it had no idea how many pipes were actually there, it increased the pressure too much and burst the pipes. The result was an outbreak of gastro-enteritis in which several dozen people died. Until the digital mapping project started, the government could not even properly tax gas stations in the city, because it did not know how many there were. It is possible to see all this when the computers are working; but, when I was there, they were not, because the electricity had failed; and, although the local government has its own generators, the money had run out to provide them with fuel.

According to Mr Khokar, ‘Things are improving. Not as fast as we would like, but still they are on track.’ One key reason for this is that in 2008 the new PML(N) government in Punjab did not withdraw its support from the project, even though it had been initiated under Musharraf and the PML(Q) government of Punjab. This marks a change from the usual – and disastrous – Pakistani practice, which the PML(N) government has followed in other areas.

Some of Faisalabad’s cotton industry is also truly impressive. The Chenab mill at Nishatabad is the biggest of eight mills in the Chenab group, with 4,000 workers (out of 14,000 in the group as a whole) and an output in 2008 worth $130 million. The mill is capable of turning out 12,000 individual garments a day. The group owns the stylish (and extremely expensive) Chen One chain of clothes shops and shopping malls in Pakistan, and supplies Macy’s, J. C. Penney, Debenhams, Ikea and Laura Ashley, among other international outlets. I am no expert on textile production, but the mill gave a completely modern impression, with apparently well-fed women working on huge, smoothly running machines in giant air-conditioned workshops. One that I visited was producing frilly women’s underwear, and I have never seen so much pink in such a large space at the same time. The headquarters building could have been an unusually stylish office in Singapore or Frankfurt. None of this is the kind of thing one sees in a ‘failed state’.

When I visited Faisalabad last in January 2009, however, boasts of the city’s success were interspersed with bitter complaints about its present economic state (admittedly, a local journalist also warned me that ‘Faisalabad is known as “the city of opposition” because our industrialists are not happy whatever happens’). Local anger and worry focused above all on the electricity shortages which at that time were crippling the city’s industrial production and exports.

Just as even very moderately well-off families in Pakistan pay a fortune for private generators to avoid the constant load-shedding, so the bigger mills and factories have had to develop their own power plants and import the fuel for them privately. The problem is that not only is this extremely expensive, but in Pakistan’s – and even Faisalabad’s – semi-modern economy, the big mills rely for supplies of many of their semi-finished goods on small local mills and even piece-workers, who are completely dependent on the state electricity grid. Chenab’s managing director (and son of its founder, Mian Mohammed Kashif Ashfaq) told me that this is true even of his group.

Above all, though, the problem when I last visited the city was electricity, and the lack of it seemed likely for a while to provoke mass riots that could even have toppled the national government, a conflict in which the industrialists and their workers might have found themselves on the same side. The head of Faisalabad district council, Rana Zahid Tauseef (himself a textile industrialist), complained bitterly:

My customers in the US, UK, Australia need guaranteed commitments that I will keep my contract to supply them. Yes, my firm has a good reputation so they may wait one week or even six but finally they will say, ‘You are not reliable, you live in a shit country, I can’t order from you any more.’ How can we possibly compete with other countries if we can’t rely on our own electricity grid?11

Quite apart from the issue of electricity supply, the working conditions in the smaller workshops – or rather sweat-shops – bear no resemblance to those at Chenab Mills. The contrast is absolutely jarring – as if, while visiting a factory in Lancashire today, you were to be transported by a wicked witch with a taste for education back to a factory in Lancashire in 1849. And for all the modernity of parts of Faisalabad, the ‘old’ centre around the clock-tower is a typical Pakistani inner-city slum, in which the roads are not even paved.

Concerning the clock-tower, I experienced a small example of how constant mass migration from the countryside continually undermines the development of a civic identity and urban culture in most of Pakistan’s cities. My driver, a recent migrant to Faisalabad from a village (but a village only 10 miles away), could not find the tower in the dead centre of town, even when I showed him a postcard of it.

The industrialists heaped curses on the administration of President Zardari for incompetent purchasing decisions and favouring agriculture over industry; but they also had harsh words for the previous Musharraf administration and especially his Prime Minister (previously Finance Minister, from 1999 to 2004), Shaukat Aziz.

In the words of Azem Khurshid, a mill owner:

In terms of our recent leaders, Musharraf was the best of the worst. He appointed some good people and got us out of debt. But he and Shaukat Aziz were obsessed with empty growth figures and with how many cellphones and fridges people were buying. Beyond Gwadar and the motorway, they did nothing for the infrastructure of the country, including electricity generation, on which industry depends – and we are paying the price for it today. We are suffering from all those years of the Washington Consensus which our leaders followed blindly. Now the West is revising its approaches but it will probably take years to filter through here, and we have already lost years which we should have spent building up our real economy ...

And then Musharraf made his compromise with the feudal politicians, and that of course meant favouring agriculture at the expense of industry, and the PPP government is dominated by feudal landowners. Even the Sharifs, though they are industrialists themselves, have to favour the feudals because they have the seats in the countryside and you can’t win a majority without them. So throughout Pakistani history, state resources have gone to buying feudals and their families and followers, and not on turning Pakistan into a modern economy.

The obvious question is why, with their wealth, intelligence and economic dynamism, the industrialists and businessmen themselves have not been able to gain greater influence over state policies. After all, even the PPP is no longer explicitly hostile to private industry (as it was in the days of Z. A. Bhutto) and the other major forces are strongly in favour of industry: the PML(N) because the Sharifs are industrialists themselves, the MQM because industry is part of their vision of a modern, successful Karachi, and the military not only because it too believes strongly in modernizing Pakistan, but also because indirectly (thanks to the Fauji Foundation and Army Welfare Trust) it is itself a major industrial force.

The answer seems to lie partly in a combination of sheer lack of weight within society, and an absence of kinship networks. For all that the textile industry dominates Pakistan’s exports and is absolutely crucial to its balance of payments and ability to import essential goods, its share of the economy is relatively small, and its workers form a small part of the population as a whole – and this is especially true of modern industries like Chenab Mills.

For every semi-modern city like Faisalabad, there are dozens of medium-sized towns (which in Pakistan means towns with populations of hundreds of thousands of people), where the entire local economy is based on small shops and stalls, small family-owned workshops, and mostly fairly primitive food-processing. In these towns, kinship remains of central political importance, and the political scene is dominated not by modern businessmen but by interlinked clans of urban and rural notables living mainly off rents. The constant swamping of settled urban populations by new waves of migrants also plays a key role in preventing the growth of truly urban politics.

The business community is also fractured along lines of kinship, and by the rivalries and bitterness caused by past political alignments, and the victimization by governments of businessmen who have backed the other side. This has made many industrialists wary of becoming involved in politics at all. ‘Businessmen are afraid to get involved with politics because they are afraid that their businesses will be targeted with tax raids, land claims, court cases, deliberate electricity cuts and so on,’ Mr Khurshid told me.

Most importantly, perhaps, unlike most of the ‘feudals’, the industrialists and businessmen in politics have no mass kinship groups to fall back on – and their workers are hardly likely to behave like a clan and guarantee them a permanent vote bank. Because so many city-dwellers have only recently arrived from the country, even in the cities kinship networks often remain vital to power and influence. Money and property are of course very important, but not all-important. Even in Faisalabad city and district, a majority (though a small one) of members of the national and provincial assemblies are from landed families. These are not huge ‘feudals’, and they usually draw most of their wealth from urban land, but they are still primarily landed notables rather than urban businessmen or professionals.

All of this might have been set aside if the military and the industrial elites had formed a solid alliance to develop the country, as has been the case in a number of developing economies in the past (Germany and Japan are the most famous, if not the happiest examples). This looked as if it might be happening when Zia-ul-Haq re-created the Muslim League and put Nawaz Sharif in charge of it. But in the ten years after Zia’s death, first the army refused to back the Muslim League against the PPP, then the Muslim League tried to gain dominance over the military, and then the military under Musharraf shattered the alliance for good by overthrowing Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf, to stay in power, compromised with the same old ‘feudal’ elements in Punjab, and all chance of a military – political – industrial alliance for development was lost.

That leaves the Islamists. In Turkey, the moderate Islamist party (in its various incarnations) rose to power with mass support, but also very much on the shoulders of provincial business and industrial elites. If anywhere in Pakistan, Faisalabad would seem to be the place where the beginnings of such a development might be found. But, as mentioned earlier, the Jamaat Islami there seems hopelessly tied to its lower-middle-class constituency – which is barred from seeking working-class support by class and cultural factors, but is also too poor and uneducated (compared to its Turkish, Egyptian or Iranian equivalents) to generate any kind of coherent modern social and economic policies.

In the words of a local administrator: ‘It would be very difficult for the Islamists to make much headway in Faisalabad, because they have no answer to practical problems like gas and electricity, and this is a very practical place. We are Punjabi businessmen here, not Pathans – warriors, dreamers, fanatics.’ Despite the intense anger of many Faisalabad workers at electricity cuts and growing unemployment, during my stay in the city I found no one who seemed to think that there was any serious chance of the Pakistani Taleban successfully appealing for their support and setting off a mass revolt in Faisalabad.


It is quite otherwise in different parts of central and southern Punjab. If Punjab – and Pakistan – were to be broken from within by Islamist extremism, then the process would start here, in the belt between Jhang and Bahawalpur, with the ancient city of Multan at its heart. Here, Islamist militancy may be able to make serious inroads with the help of local sectarian forces which since the 1980s have been attacking the local Shia community. The Pakistani Taleban have formed an alliance with these sectarian groups which in 2009 – 10 led to increasing terrorism in Punjab. Because of poverty, madrasahs in southern Punjab are more important than in the north, where the state education system has a bigger presence (in rural areas, the literacy rate is less than 25 per cent); and these madrasahs have long been a key recruiting ground for militant groups.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, madrasahs sent many fighters first to the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, and then to the jihad in Kashmir; so groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, formerly backed by the Pakistani military to fight in Kashmir, have a strong presence in southern Punjab. Hundreds of recruits from this region were killed in Kashmir, and as in the Frontier their graves have become local places of pilgrimage. As elsewhere, association with the Kashmiri and Afghan jihads has been absolutely critical to increasing the prestige of local militants.

However, the main jihadi groups in Punjab are not yet in revolt against the Pakistani state; and, precisely because the most important extremist forces in southern Punjab are sectarian forces, it seems to me extremely unlikely that they will be able to start a rebellion that could conquer the region, as the Taleban were able for a number of years to take over large parts of the FATA and Swat. Their ideological programme is bitterly resisted not only by the Shia but by all the local Sunni who are deeply attached to their local shrines and traditions – like Data Ganj Baksh; and their social radicalism will be equally savagely resisted by most of the local elites. This picture would change only if Lashkar-e-Taiba /Jamaat-ud-Dawa were to ally with the TTP – and failing a really determined crackdown on them by the Pakistani authorities, they seem unlikely to do so. I have been told by officials that precisely because their core agenda is anti-India, this gives LeT’s leaders an especially acute sense of the Indian threat, and discourages them from taking actions that would weaken or even destroy Pakistan.

What the extremists in this region can do, however, is carry out bloody terrorist attacks, which they have been doing for many years against the Shia. By mid-2010, this extremist alliance had also repeatedly shown its ability to carry out serious terrorist attacks in Punjab against the state and the general public – though it is important to remember once again the crucial difference between terrorism and successful rebellion.

A certain latent tension has existed between Sunni and Shia in this region for a long time, owing to the tendency of successive regimes, ending with the British, to reward Shia nobles – some, like the Turkic Qizilbash, from far away – with great land grants in areas populated by a mainly Sunni peasantry. However, despite occasional denunciations of the Shia as heretics by Sunni preachers, until the 1980s this tension remained very limited.

As the Multan Gazetteer of 1923 stated: ‘Generally speaking there is very little bitterness between the Sunni and Shia sects, and in the ordinary intercourse of life there is little to distinguish the two’12 – something that could certainly not have been said of Shia – Sunni relations in other South Asian Muslim cities like Lahore, Quetta and Lucknow. But as Sunni peasants moved into local towns in the mid-twentieth century, a new Sunni lower middle class emerged which saw its access to jobs and patronage blocked by the Shia elites and their clients. A degree of resentment at Shia dominance is therefore widespread. As a (personally enlightened) head teacher in Multan told me: ‘There is a feeling among many people here that the Shia stick together, protect each other and give each other the best jobs – like the Freemasons in England.’ Anti-Shia groups also built on the successful campaigns from the 1950s to the 1960s to have the Ahmedi sect declared non-Muslim.

In the early 1980s several factors came together to create a wholly new level of sectarian violence, starting in the Jhang district of central Punjab. The Iranian revolution gave new confidence and prominence to the Shia minority in Pakistan, and raised fears in the establishment that they might become a revolutionary force. Many Shia firmly believe – though without any actual evidence – that Washington encouraged the administration to attack the Shia, out of fear that they could spread Iranian-style revolution.

President Zia-ul-Haq had already become bitterly unpopular with many Shia for the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (a Shia), and for his promulgation of Islamic laws for Pakistan based purely on the teachings of the Hanafi Sunni sect. This move led to massive Shia protests orchestrated by the radical Shia organization the Tehriq-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqah Jafferia, which forced the government to back down and concede to the Shia their own separate code in certain respects.

These developments in turn stoked the anger of certain Sunni groups, and may have led Pakistani intelligence services to favour the creation of Sunni sectarian forces in response. There is, however, no actual evidence of this, and it is entirely possible that these forces simply bought some of the arms which flooded into Pakistan to arm the Afghan Mujahidin – especially as these were being funded by state and private money from Saudi Arabia, with its strong traditional hostility to Iran and Shiism.

Later, the sectarians also forged links with groups participating in the Kashmir jihad, and probably received guns from them – another case of the Frankenstein syndrome or, rather, of Frankenstein’s monster wandering off, making friends with other monsters, and starting whole families of little monsters.

The result was the creation in Jhang in 1985 of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), as a breakaway group of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The SSP began a programme of attacks on local Shia targets, in the name of declaring the Shia non-Muslims and making Pakistan an officially Sunni state like Saudi Arabia. Local police told me that, in a few cases, local Sunni businessmen owing debts to Shia creditors or with business disputes with Shia rivals paid the SSP or LeJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) to kill them.

Over the years the SSP’s activities spread beyond Jhang to take in southern Punjab and other areas of the country where old Sunni – Shia tensions had been latent, including Quetta, Peshawar and the Kurram Agency of FATA, where tribal conflict between the Sunni Bangash and Shia Tori tribes dates back some 300 years. In recent years, the SSP and their even more radical offshoot the LeJ have also extended their anti-Shia campaign to take in Ahmedis and Christians. Radical Shia fought back through the Tehriq-e-Jafferia and other groups, and in the 25 years to 2010 more than 6,000 people have been killed in sectarian clashes and terrorism, with the dead in a rough proportion of three Shia to two Sunni. Individual leaders and activists on both sides have been killed, mosques have been bombed, and on occasions bazaars frequented by people of the rival community have also been attacked.

It should be noted that, unlike with the jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan, since General Zia’s time at least there has been no evidence of Pakistani governments backing the anti-Shia militants. The PPP is naturally extremely hostile to them, if only because the Bhuttos and Zardaris are Shia, and so are (in private at least) many of the PPP’s chief supporters among the landowners of central and southern Punjab. Despite the apparent sympathy of some leading members of the PML(N) for the anti-Shia militants, when Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister in the late 1990s, his government launched a crackdown against them during which many were killed. The response was an attempt by the LeJ to kill Mr Sharif. The Musharraf administration continued this assault on the Sunni sectarians, and banned the SSP and LeJ in January 2002.

These repeated attacks by the state are a key reason why the SSP and LeJ (unlike the militants fighting in Kashmir such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba) have themselves increasingly attacked the state as well as the Shia and Christians, and as of 2009 have formed an alliance with the Pakistani Taleban. The wave of terrorism they have launched in Punjab also gives one more sympathy for the Pakistani state’s deep unwillingness to add to the number of their terrorist enemies by attacking the even more formidable Lashkar-e-Taiba. As a senior official in Faisalabad told me in January 2009:

I am seriously worried about the spread of militancy from Jhang to the rest of Punjab. It is true that so far LeJ and SSP have been only sectarian, but they can switch. The same is even true of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, even though we have backed them all these years. We have to worry that if we do what you say and crack down on them that some of them at least will turn to terrorism against Pakistan in alliance with the Taleban. After all, they have the ideology and the training. The last thing we need now is yet another extremist threat.

The fact that despite crackdowns by successive Pakistani regimes the sectarian extremists have been able to survive is another reflection of the weakness of the Pakistani state, and especially of the police and judiciary. In the words of a police officer in Jhang district in 2002:

There are hundreds of thousands of SSP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi sympathizers in this region and we aren’t America – we can’t arrest them all and send them to Cuba. We have to stay more or less within the law. It’s different for the hard-core terrorists who we know have killed people – them, we can sometimes just kill. But there are so many more people who may have given them shelter, or who may be going to become terrorists, but who haven’t actually done anything yet. Under the anti-terrorism laws, we can hold people for three months, but after that we have to go to the High Court, and the court will demand evidence that we usually don’t have, because witnesses just will not come forward – you can understand why. Only very rarely do the courts allow us to hold people permanently in preventive detention. And of course the judges are also frightened. That is why they let out Azam Tariq, though everyone knows he has ordered God knows how many murders ...

Everyone says that it is because the police sympathize with the militants, but I can tell you that is definitely not true at the senior level – junior policemen, yes, in some cases. But you know twenty-two policemen have been killed by these bastards in Jhang alone in the past ten years. The superintendent of a jail where SSP prisoners were being held was even kidnapped in front of his own jail and killed. That kind of thing scared the police, and for a time we became quite inactive in this part of Punjab. That was especially true in the early ’90s, but in recent years we have become much tougher.

As he freely admitted, the difficulty of getting convictions means that if the police get an order to deal firmly with some sectarian leader, their response often is to kill him. Several leaders of the SSP have indeed been killed, either with or without official complicity. In 1990, one of the group’s founders, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, was killed by Shia terrorists, as was his successor Maulana Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi. In October 2003, after attempts to convict him for terrorism had failed, SSP leader Maulana Azam Tariq was shot dead by unidentified gunmen a hundred yards or so from a police checkpoint in Islamabad where he had been stopped for half an hour.

Officially, the killing was blamed on Shia militants, but both the private accounts of my official friends and the circumstances of the killing make it clear that the Pakistani state was involved. This was also almost certainly true of Azam Tariq’s successor, Allama Ali Sher Haideri, who was killed in an ambush in Khairpur, Sindh, in August 2009, once again ostensibly by Shia militants. The killing came two weeks after an anti-Christian pogrom orchestrated by the SSP in the Punjabi town of Gojra, which killed eight local Christians and severely embarrassed both the national and provincial governments. Private claims by intelligence officials that this was official retaliation for Gojra therefore seem credible.

When covering the 2002 parliamentary elections in Pakistan, I travelled for a while with a Shia politician in central Punjab. According to both official and unofficial sources (speaking off the record), the SSP had made a plot to ambush and kill her, possibly emboldened by the fact that Azam Tariq had been released from jail shortly before and was standing in the elections.

The local police received categorical orders that sectarian attacks on politicians during the elections were to be prevented. The police response? They took three Lashkar-e-Jhangvi activists (whom they suspected but were not able to prove had been responsible for several previous murders of Shia) into a field at night and shot them ‘while resisting arrest’, and let SSP and LeJ know that if they launched attacks during the elections there would be many more such ‘encounter killings’ of their members. I asked an official acquaintance whether a strong warning wouldn’t have been enough. ‘This was a strong warning, the only warning these people understand,’ he replied.

In consequence, for many years the sectarians have also been launching attacks on state targets, which in turn has increased state hostility to them. Terrorism by SSP and LeJ increased enormously after the storming of the Red Mosque in 2007 (in which fighters linked to SSP were killed) radicalized Islamists across Pakistan, while US drone attacks killed Punjabis from the sectarian parties fighting for the Taleban in the FATA and Afghanistan.

In July 2009, a huge explosion destroyed part of a village in Multan district and killed seventeen people when an arms cache in the home of a local madrasah teacher with links to the SSP and the Pakistani Taleban blew up accidentally. In the following months, the growth of terrorism in Punjab seems largely to have been the work of SSP and LeJ militants linked to the Pakistani Taleban, rather than of the Taleban as such. According to credible reports, Pakistani intelligence responded in typical fashion with a mixture of arrests, extra-judicial executions, and attempts to split the militants and draw more ‘moderate’ Sipah-e-Sahaba members into allegiance to the state. This also appears to be the strategy of the PML(N) government of Punjab. Whether it will have any success is at the time of writing wholly unclear.


A famous Persian couplet about Multan sums up some of the reasons for Sunni militant support there, and the immense obstacles to it: ‘In four rare things Multan abounds / Heat, dust, beggars and burial grounds.’ The notorious heat and dust of summer have no great impact one way or the other, but while the beggars reflect the area’s poverty, the burial grounds are those of local Sufi saints and their followers. Multan was the first part of present-day Punjab to be converted to Islam, starting in the tenth century, and the conversion was largely carried out by these saints.

It is impossible to miss the saints in Multan. Their tombs literally tower over the old city on its hill, and give Multan its fame. Several are faced with the equally famous blue Multani tilework. The shrine of Shah Rukn-e-Alam is a particularly striking combination of grim fortress and soaring fantasy. The lower parts consist of walls and towers of massive unadorned brickwork, which act as the base for a beautiful tiled dome.

Despite horribly destructive sieges by the Sikhs and British, and the whims of the Chenab River, which now flows several miles away, a combination of the strategic hill and pilgrimages to the saints’ tombs has meant that Multan has always been rebuilt in the same place. It is indeed the oldest continuously inhabited city in Pakistan, and visitors are shown the spot on the old walls where Alexander the Great was wounded during his attack on the city. This might conceivably be true, though the attraction of the spot for tourists is sadly diminished by the fact that it now faces yet another concrete semi-slum which over the years has swamped what used to be a Mughal garden.

Worship of the saints is the greatest local obstacle to the spread of Sunni radical ideology in southern Punjab, just as the political power of the great landowning families – Gilani, Qureishi, Khakwani and Gardezi – who are the saints’ descendants and custodians of their shrines (pirs) means that a radical takeover would require a massive social revolution. At the time of writing, both the Pakistani Prime Minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, and the Foreign Minister, Syed Shah Mahmood Qureshi, are from Multani pir families. They are both from the PPP, but began in the PML(N), and other branches of their family are still in that party.

The shrines and the pir families illustrate a key obstacle to the propagation of sectarian hatred in Punjab, which is that no one knows how many Shia there actually are, because in a great many cases no one can ascertain – including quite often the people concerned themselves – who is Shia and who is Sunni. The Sufi shrines, their custodians and their followers play an important part in this by constantly preaching against the Sunni – Shia divide and stressing that ‘our saint preached that there should be neither Sunni nor Shia, but only worshippers of God’ – as I was told at many shrines.

Apart from the stricter followers of the saints, masses of ordinary local people worship at the shrines and are influenced by this feeling. As for the pir families themselves, some of the Gardezis are openly Shia, as is their shrine. The Qureishis and Gilanis are generally thought to be Shia, but practise Sunni worship in public. Then there is a variety of traditional local arrangements, either based on status, or intended to dampen sectarian conflict and extend the alliance networks of particular clans. Thus I was told that the local Khosar tribe (like the Legharis, of Baloch origin but now Seraiki-speaking) worship the local saints and take their wives from Shia families, while the men of the tribe remain Sunni. Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet, including all the pir families) by definition only marry other Sayyids, and this rule is far more important than sectarian divides.

I visited the shrine of Shah Yusuf Gardezi in Multan together with a member of the Syed Gardezi family, a student at the local Broomfield Hall School where I had given a talk. The shrine is home not only to the tomb of the original saint but to those of members of his family and leading followers – including the lion and snake which accompanied him to Multan, and come in for their own share of respect. Presumably when paying respects to a lion the question of whether the creature was a Shia or Sunni lion is not uppermost in the mind of the worshipper.

Though openly Shia, the shrine is therefore also worshipped at by local Sunni. The stories of miracles I heard about the shrine were told to me by local Shia and local Sunni. A senior official in Multan told me that during the Shia festival of Ashura (10th Moharram) in Multan, when the administration issues licences to carry taziyas (imitation mausoleums of the martyred Imams made of wood and paper, like small towers) in procession, ‘90 per cent of the licences went to people calling themselves Barelvi Sunnis’.

Less encouraging was what my Gardezi guide told me in January 2009 about his school. Broomfield Hall is very much the school of the local elite (not the very top elite, who would go to the famous schools of Lahore, but their close relatives). He said that three-quarters of the boys in his class sympathize with the Pakistani Taleban: ‘They say that they are good Muslims oppressed by America and the Pakistani army.’ He said that one seventeen-year-old son of a local businessman

is trying to grow a big beard to look what he calls proper Muslim. He says he is a Wahabi. I don’t think he really knows what that means but he certainly hates us Shia. He says that he would like to go to America and blow himself up together with Americans. He makes me laugh, though it isn’t really very funny.

Most of this is doubtless adolescent posturing, but as far as anti-American sentiment among the students goes, there can be no doubt. When I spoke to the senior classes, they were full of the same crazed conspiracy theories as the rest of society. In their view, it has been proved that the Jews were responsible for 9/11; that a Jewish conspiracy exists to dominate the world; that the US has occupied Afghanistan in order to invade Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, and so on, and on.

The vast majority of Broomfield’s students of course have far too much to lose ever to join an extremist group; but sentiments among poor people on the street were just as extreme – and they have far less to lose. As in the rest of Punjab, in January 2009 in Multan I found some sympathy for the Pakistani Taleban among most of those people I asked who declared themselves to be Sunni (I made a point of asking my interviewees’ sectarian affiliation, though many refused to answer, in some cases giving adherence to a saint as the reason). Concerning the idea of military action against the Taleban (Pakistani or Afghan) a majority of Sunni and even some Shia were opposed. This may have changed since then, but I doubt it has changed completely.

However, the Shia (together with smaller minority Muslim groups like the Bohra, who also fear persecution by Sunni radicals) were the only section of the population with many members willing to support military action. Shia and Bohra were also the only former PPP voters on the streets in Multan, many of whom still said that they would vote for Zardari and the PPP at the next election. As of that date at least, the local Sunni seemed to have deserted the party en masse.

Then again, one should not make too much of this. Several of the Shia and Bohra also said that they were sick of the PPP and Zardari and would vote PML(N) at the next election, and a good many Sunni, if not a majority, denounced the Pakistani Taleban and said it was right to fight against them. All my interviewees, Sunni, Shia and Bohra alike, denounced the US and its presence in Afghanistan, but then that is true even in the most anti-militant circles in Pakistan. Furthermore, this was among the lower-middle-class shopkeepers in the bazaars of Multan city, where one would expect Sunni militant feeling to be stronger, and where people (including the Shia middle classes, for economic reasons) are more likely to vote PML(N). After the 2008 elections, of Multan district’s six national assembly seats, three were held by the PPP, two by the PML(N) and one by the PML(Q). Two of the PPP’s Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) and the PML(Q) MNA were from pir families. The PLM(N) MNAs were a small landowner and a local businessman.

In the countryside of Punjab south of Multan, pirs and their shrines are still very widely revered, and kinship groups and their hereditary landowning chieftains remain politically dominant. This, the Seraiki language, and the presence of large numbers of Baloch tribes bind southern Punjab closely to Sindh, the subject of the next chapter – more closely in many respects than to northern Punjab. Rural Sindh contains very little support for Islamist militancy of either the jihadi or the sectarian variety; but like southern Punjab and Balochistan – and unlike northern and central Punjab – most of Sindh also contains few signs of economic and social change and dynamism.

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