The province of Sindh in southern Pakistan is a rural region of dusty mudbrick villages, of white-domed blue-tiled Sufi shrines, and of salty desert scrublands broken, quite suddenly, by floodplains of wonderful fecundity. These thin, fertile belts of green—cotton fields, rice paddies, cane breaks, and miles of checkerboard mango orchards—snake along the banks of the Indus River as it meanders its sluggish, silted, café-au-lait way through the plains of Pakistan down to the shores of the Arabian Sea.
In many ways the landscape here with its harsh juxtaposition of dry horizons of sand and narrow strips of intensely fertile cultivation more closely resembles upper Egypt than the well-irrigated Punjab to its north. But it is poorer than either—in fact, it is one of the most backward areas in all of Asia. Whatever index of development you choose to dwell on—literacy, health care provision, daily income, or numbers living below the poverty line—rural Sindh comes bumping along close to the bottom. Here landlords still rule with guns and private armies over vast tracts of country; bonded labor—a form of debt slavery—leaves tens of thousands shackled to their places of work. It is also, in parts, lawless and dangerous to move around in, especially at night.
I first learned about the dacoits—or highwaymen—when I attempted to leave the provincial market town of Sukkur after dark a week before the recent elections.1 It was a tense time everywhere, and violence was widely expected. But in Sindh the tension had resolved itself into an outbreak of rural brigandage. We left Sukkur asking for directions to Larkana, the home village of the Bhutto family, only to be warned by people huddled in tea stalls shrouded under thick shawls that we should not try to continue until first light the following morning. They said there had been ten or fifteen robberies on the road in the last fortnight alone.
If it is dangerous to travel here at night, it is much more dangerous to declare openly for the candidates you support in the elections. The big landlords here—the zamindars—expect electoral loyalty from their tenants. As the Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid put it, “In some constituencies if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with ninety-nine per cent of the vote.” Such loyalty can be enforced. In the more remote and lawless areas the zamindars and their thugs often bribe or threaten the polling agents, then simply stuff the ballot boxes with thousands of votes for themselves. This is sufficiently common for the practice to have its own descriptive term: “booth capturing.”
Democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning has traditionally been the social base from which most politicians emerge, especially in rural areas. Here Pakistan is quite different from India, where the urban middle class quickly gained control in 1947. That class has been largely excluded from Pakistan’s political process, as, even more so, has the rural peasantry. There are no Pakistani equivalents of Indian peasant leaders such as Laloo Prasad Yadav, the village cowherd turned (former) chief minister of Bihar, or Mayawati, the dalit (untouchable) leader and current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
You can see the results of a system dominated by landowners in a town like Khairpur, a short distance from Sukkur in the northern part of Sindh. As you drive along, the turban-clad head of the local feudal lord, Sadruddin Shah, with a curling black mustache, sneers down from billboards placed every fifty yards along the road. Shah, who was standing, as usual, for no less than three different seats, is often held up in the liberal Pakistani press as the epitome of all that is worst about Pakistani electoral feudalism. After all, this is a man who goes electioneering not with leaflets setting out his program, but with five pickup trucks full of his men armed with pump-action shotguns and Kalashnikovs.
For generations the area has been dominated by Sadruddin’s family, the head of whom—currently Sadruddin’s father—is known as the Pir Pagara, “the Holy Man with the Turban.” The Pir Pagaras are not only the largest and most powerful of the local feudal landowners, but they are also the descendants of the local Sufi saint. Normally Sufism is a force for peace and brotherhood—Islam at its most pluralistic and tolerant. At the other end of Sindh I have attended the annual ‘urs—or shrine festival—of the Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif, where there is ecstatic Sufi music, the singing of love poetry, and men and women dancing together—something that would horrify the orthodox ‘ulema.
But Khairpur has a very different and more militant Sufi tradition. The Pir Pagaras have always had their own Hur militia, which once acted as a guerrilla force against the British and now acts as Sadruddin’s private electoral army. The week I was in the district the local papers were full of stories of Sadruddin’s gunmen shooting at crowds of little boys shouting slogans supporting the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto, and burning down the houses of those of his tenants who had flown opposition flags.
The leaders of this feudal army were standing for election under the banner of their own pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (known as PML-F, in the alphabet soup of acronyms that characterizes Pakistani elections). Against them were ranged the forces of Benazir Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Contrary to its socialist-sounding name, the PPP has traditionally also been very much a feudal party that has consistently failed to bring about any serious land reform that would break the power of the landowners. Benazir Bhutto herself was from a landowning feudal family in Sindh; so is Asif Ali Zardari, her widower and the current co-chairman of the PPP, which she left to him and their son Bilawal in her will as if it were a personal possession; so also is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the most likely candidate for prime minister of the new PPP-dominated coalition.
But things are at last beginning to change in Pakistani politics, and here in Khairpur at least, the PPP candidates were largely middle-class—a new development in the region. Nafisa Shah, who was one of the candidates standing against Sadruddin, is the impeccably middle-class daughter of a local lawyer, who is currently at Oxford University writing a Ph.D. dissertation on honor killings.
Nafisa’s campaign was hugely assisted by a wave of sympathy for Benazir: the day she was assassinated, Khairpur was consumed by riots, and for four days full-scale warfare broke out between Benazir supporters and the local administration, during which the election headquarters of the pro-Musharraf parties and several offices of the local government were burned down.
Partly because of this simmering discontent, outbreaks of violence were predicted on polling day, and everyone was anticipating widespread rigging by Musharraf and his intelligence agency cronies, something to which the Musharraf-appointed election commission was expected to turn a blind eye. This, it was predicted, would be followed by more riots organized by the discontented opposition parties who had been cheated of their votes.
In fact, however, serious violence did not materialize, either in Khairpur or elsewhere, and to general astonishment, Nafisa and her fellow PPP candidates had a remarkably strong victory, monitored and filmed by Pakistan’s increasingly fearless and independent press and television. The PML-F was almost wiped out and Sadruddin Shah won only his own home seat—and that with the narrowest of margins.
What happened in Khairpur was a small revolution—a middle-class victory over the forces of reactionary feudal landlordism. More astonishingly, it was a revolution that was reproduced across the country. To widespread surprise, the elections in Pakistan were free and fair; and Pakistanis voted heavily in favor of liberal centrist parties opposed to both the mullahs and the army. Here, in a country normally held up in the more Islamophobic right-wing press of Western countries as the epitome of “what went wrong” in the Islamic world, a popular election resulted in an unequivocal vote for moderate, secular democracy.
For Pakistani liberals, 2007 was one of the worst years in their country’s history. In early March, Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, accusing him of using his position for personal gain. This was clearly not the case. Chaudhry had a reputation for both integrity and independence, and most assumed that Musharraf simply wanted to replace him with a more pliant judge who would not block his reelection as president.
Some were encouraged by the popular protests mounted by Pakistan’s lawyers in response to Chaudhry’s suspension—in city after city across the country lawyers took to the streets in their court robes, marching in orderly ranks, three abreast, like emperor penguins in a nature film. But any optimism was quickly dimmed by the heavy-handed response of Musharraf’s riot police and the simultaneous growth of Islamist radicalism in the heart of the capital, Islamabad.
This took the form of the heavily veiled, black-clad “chicks with sticks” who, in April 2007, emerged in large numbers armed with bamboo canes from a mosque and madrasa complex in the city center, not far from the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The young women then proceeded to ransack suspected brothels and smash video and music stores in the capital while the police watched, apparently helpless. The bloody storming by the army of their base, the Red Mosque, in early July was followed by an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and Islamist revenge attacks against the army. In all there were sixty suicide bombings in Pakistan last year, leaving 770 people dead and nearly 1,600 injured.
By autumn the situation had become even worse, with a series of crushing military defeats inflicted on the Pakistani army by the Taliban in Waziristan, the “extraordinary rendition” by Musharraf’s officials of the former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif back to Saudi Arabia after his return from exile, and the subsequent declaration of an emergency by President Musharraf, who put a number of dissenting lawyers, political opponents, and human rights activists under house arrest. The disasters reached a horrific climax in December with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. This led many to predict that Pakistan was looking like a failed state stumbling toward collapse and civil war. The cruel contrast with India, then widely being celebrated as a future democratic superpower on its sixtieth birthday, was unmistakable.
Yet the widespread publicity given to the crisis obscured the important changes that had quietly taken place in Pakistani society during Musharraf’s eight years in power. Pakistan’s economy is currently in difficulty, with fast-rising inflation and shortages of electricity and flour; but between 2002 and 2006 it had grown almost as strongly as India’s. Until the beginning of 2007, Pakistan had a construction and consumer boom, with growth approaching 8 percent; for several years its stock market was the fastest-rising in Asia.
I briefly draw here and elsewhere on my dispatch to The New Statesman, February 21, 2008.↩
I briefly draw here and elsewhere on my dispatch to The New Statesman, February 21, 2008.↩