The suppression of local voices in Pakistan is primarily the result of two different forms of colonialism, which might be described as external colonialism and “internal colonialism.” External colonialism refers to the ongoing influence of foreign colonial powers in Pakistan, particularly the legacy of British colonialism. Internal colonialism (a term used by academics like Tariq Rahman and Robert J. Hind) refers to the assertion that Pakistan’s centre or the historically dominating province of Punjab has not fairly devolved power or influence to the provinces or specific ethnolinguistic groups or that they have extracted the resources of different provinces and not for the benefit of those provinces or their people. The two should not be considered distinct categories, however, because some of the legacies of external colonial powers have been maintained and perpetuated by Pakistanis themselves since the British left, as and when it has suited their interests to do so.
The challenge of defining what constitutes a local voice in Pakistan concerns how narrowly or specifically a locality is pinpointed. When we talk about a local voice, are we referring to voices local to the region or, more specifically, the voices of a city, town or community? This is further complicated by the mass transfer of populations that accompanied Partition in 1947, such that largely Muslim communities migrated from across newly independent India to Pakistan. The issue of whether a person is indigenous (native, before the arrival of colonists) to a place on the more local level of a city or a region (now constituting a province of Pakistan) or on the more national or continental level becomes more relevant in the context of belonging, animosity and competition.
Studies are increasingly shedding light on syncretism across Pakistan, as reflected in the practices of indigenous communities, influenced by a mix of Islamic practices and beliefs with those of Hinduism and Buddhism in particular.
For the purposes of this article, where the subject of discussion is external colonialism, the local population will be used to refer to all the communities who originally lived in the wider region occupied by the British before the colonists arrived. But, in the discussion of internal colonialism, the term local will be used with reference to the people who live in a specific city or province because it is primarily the actions of Pakistan’s centre or members of other provinces in a specific locality to which they do not hail from that concern us here. In the case of language, the term “local voices” can be applied literally to those languages that have been used by the inhabitants of modern-day Pakistan, such as the provincial languages of Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pashto. In this sense, the suppression of local languages is one manifestation of the suppression of local voices who communicate solely or primarily through these languages, a role played earlier by the English-speaking colonial forces and later by Pakistan’s English- and/or Urdu-speaking elites.
As an English-speaking non-Pakistani, I am not entitled to speak on behalf of any local or indigenous voices in Pakistan, nor is that my intention here. Instead, I seek to explore how a range of local voices have been suppressed throughout Pakistan’s history. I would posit that to further give local voices a platform to be heard and celebrated would be a positive step towards national unity and cohesion. Also, the celebration of diversity is not a threat to Pakistan but a means of garnering greater harmony between ethnolinguistic groups and a means of Pakistan relating more positively to the wider region and world.
The more traditional discussion of colonialism and Pakistan is concerned with the ongoing legacy of the former British colonial powers who occupied pre-Partition India and deprived it of its wealth and resources, first under the guise of the East India Company (1600-1858) and then through direct rule by the British Crown (1858-1947). Those families and communities who were loyal to the British in pre-Partition India were rewarded with support, land and influence. For example, the British sought to maintain the loyalty of figures like the zamindars through what has been referred to as a “programme of paternal legislation… to shore up the traditional prop of British rule in the Punjab.” In response to anti-colonial agitations, the British would also award irrigated land to its “preferred” military recruits to extend the British “political presence.”
The connection between the colonial policy of “mutually beneficial pillaging” of regions in modern-day Pakistan by the British colonial powers and the local people they invested with land and power has also been asserted to be a factor in the disparity between the ability of different classes to withstand the devastating effects of climate change, particularly flooding. It has similarly been argued that canal colonies constructed by the British colonists in pre-Partition Punjab were distributed to reward loyalty to the British Crown, and this social transformation of the “loyal rentier class of absentee landlords” who made their wealth off the backs of labourers, has defined the access, or lack thereof, of particular classes to justice and control over it in modern-day Pakistan.
In terms of the role of ongoing British colonial legacies in suppressing local voices, this has been facilitated through the official use of English in Pakistan throughout its history, which has not only prevented non-English speakers from engaging with the processes and outputs of government and the judiciary but also from being employed into those sectors and the wider administration. This has had the effect of producing an English-speaking elite in Pakistan, the integrity of which has been protected by the fact that many cannot afford to send their children to expensive English-medium schools. Therefore, many of the English-speaking elite who have dominated influential roles cannot be considered representative of the people, many of whom do not speak English, nor are the elite fully cognisant of or receptive to the peoples’ everyday challenges and concerns which they themselves did not have to face.
Internal colonialism has been considered a crucial factor in some of Pakistan’s most challenging chapters, particularly with regard to the suppression of local languages. Bengalis (belonging to East Bengal, later renamed East Pakistan in 1955) felt alienated linguistically after the first report of the Basic Principles Committee in 1950, tasked with reporting on the “main principles on which the Constitution of Pakistan is to be framed.” The report stated that Urdu was to be Pakistan’s official language. Amena Mohsin has argued that Bengalis “adopted language as the main pillar of their platform against the hegemony of West Pakistani nationalism,” especially after four Bengali students were killed in February 1952 by the police while protesting for Bengali to become an official language in Pakistan.
But divisions between East and West Pakistan would go beyond the issue of language. The governmental centre of Pakistan lay in West Pakistan, over 1,000 miles away from East Pakistan, even though East Pakistan had the larger population. Bengalis were suspicious of West Pakistani hegemony, which became apparent in the neglect of Bengali needs and the economic exploitation of East Pakistan by West Pakistan. Some have thus concluded that “East Pakistan’s relationship to West Pakistan was similar to that of a colony to its metropole.”
Local identities and languages have been further suppressed under the state project to unify Pakistan’s diversity under a single Islamic identity and the Urdu language. There is an explicit tension between the celebration of the country’s diversity and its Islamic identity, even in statements made by Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, when he pitched the Objectives Resolution to the Constituent Assembly on 7 March 1949. Liaquat stated that Pakistan must “make our [sectarian] differences a source of strength to Islam and Pakistan” as long as it does not “obscure our vision of the real goal, which is the service of Islam and the furtherance of its objects.” He explicitly spoke of the integrity of Pakistan’s territories, given the “dictate of geography” separating East and West Pakistan, desiring that “all the areas and units, which form Pakistan, should contribute to the richness of our national life.” But anything which “tends to weaken national unity” will not be permitted.
However, Islam cannot always be so easily separated from the indigenous, pre-Islamic traditions of Pakistan. Studies are increasingly shedding light on syncretism (amalgamation of different religions) across Pakistan, as reflected in the practices of indigenous communities, influenced by a mix of Islamic practices and beliefs with those of Hinduism and Buddhism in particular. For example, Rafaullah Khan has explored the manifestation of syncretism in the oral and visual traditions of Swat. While emphasising that the ethnic groups of Swat are indeed Muslims, he notes the influence of pre-Muslim traditions and similarities between the figures of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Virinder S. Kalra and Navtej K. Purewal have similarly challenged the neat distinctions such as “Muslim” and “Hindu” in the context of the Punjabs of Pakistan and India, where religion is at times bordered and at other times “borderless”.
To celebrate and raise up, rather than deny, local voices and religious syncretisms would help to garner greater peaceful co-existence among different ethnolinguistic and faith communities within Pakistan. It would also help Pakistan itself to relate more positively towards the indigenous traditions of wider South Asia, which could have transformative implications for internal dynamics and geopolitics. The consequences of not doing so have already been laid bare, as the suppression of provincial languages and identities contributed to the independence of Bangladesh and also tensions between the centre and provincial movements, particularly those of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For the government to take proactive steps could also help to lessen the appeal of violence and militancy as a means of securing more provincial or local interests.