Strains Intensify in Pakistan's Ethnic Patchwork

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 7, 2008

KARACHI, Pakistan -- To Khaled Chema, an unemployed 32-year-old living in a sprawling slum of this mega-city by the sea, Benazir Bhutto wasn't assassinated because she opposed extremism and advocated democracy. She was killed because, like him, she was a Sindhi.

And just as her father did before her, Bhutto died a long way from home -- in the back yard of the Punjabi establishment. Her assassination has inflamed long-simmering resentments among ethnic minorities toward the dominant Punjabis.

In Pakistan -- a federation of four provinces, each associated with a different ethnic group -- the issue of ethnic identity has long been troublesome, imperiling the unity of the state.

In Baluchistan, many people are in open revolt. Pashtuns in North-West Frontier Province have joined their clansmen on the Afghan side of the border in a bloody insurgency against both governments.

Now, Bhutto's assassination in Rawalpindi, a key city in Punjab province and the home of the military, has endangered the uneasy balance in which Sindhis suppressed their ethnic-nationalist desires because they knew that one of their own was among the most popular politicians in the country.

At Bhutto's funeral in rural Sindh province last month, there was hardly a Pakistani flag to be seen, and Sindhi mourners chanted, "We don't need Pakistan!" Sindhis also attacked Punjabi targets in the three days of rioting that followed news of her killing.

Meanwhile, some here in Karachi, capital of Sindh province, are threatening to wage war against the Pakistani army unless Sindhis win more power in elections scheduled for next month. Punjabis have long been overrepresented in the army, which is widely blamed here for Bhutto's death, despite the government's insistence that Islamic extremists were responsible.

"The army is unable to work in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. Sindh is next," said Bashir Ahmal Haleemi, a trucker and longtime Karachi resident. "The people in Sindh hate the Punjabi establishment. Not the common man from Punjab, but the Punjabi factor in the army. Now the hatred is growing."

President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged the backlash, appealing for calm in a nationwide address Wednesday and reaching out "especially to my Sindhi brothers and sisters."

Pakistan was cobbled together more than 60 years ago as a homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. While religion was a common bond, the country's multilingual and multiethnic nature has never been successfully addressed by any of its leaders. The ethnic strife peaked in 1971, when Bengalis revolted and Pakistan split in half with the creation of Bangladesh.

Few believe the country is in imminent danger of fracturing again. But Bhutto's death has exacerbated ethnic tension in at least two ways: It has angered non-Punjabis because of her status as a member of a minority, and it has eliminated one of the few Pakistani politicians whose reputation transcended ethnicity.

At a time of constant upheaval in Pakistan, when religion, education levels and party affiliation are all sources of conflict, ethnic identity is just one more layer of division.

Asma Jahangir, an internationally renowned human rights advocate, said she first grasped the depth of the current ethnic tension when she attended Bhutto's funeral and heard crowds at the airport shouting at soldiers: "Leave Sindh! We don't want to be part of you! You can keep your generals!"

"It's an extremely fearful atmosphere in Pakistan," Jahangir said. "There is terrible resentment in Sindh, and if Musharraf's government stays it will just keep getting worse. I have never been this pessimistic. I have never been this depressed about Pakistan."

Bhutto herself believed ardently in the unity of Pakistan and enjoyed nationwide support. While other parties appealed to particular ethnic groups, her Pakistan People's Party had backing across the country. After her return from exile in October, she crisscrossed Pakistan. The crowds were especially large in her native Sindh, but they were sizable in the other provinces, too.

Bhutto's successors at the head of the party now have to strike a difficult balance, acknowledging the anger felt by Sindhis but also preventing that anger from becoming so strong that it makes other ethnic groups feel unwelcome.

"She was the leader of Pakistan, but she belonged to Sindh," said Nasreen Chandio, a lawmaker from the Pakistan People's Party in Karachi. "Now the people of Sindh have become orphans."

Chandio said calls for a separate Sindhi nation have grown among her constituents since Bhutto's death, "but we respect her will to unite the federation, despite all of our anger."

Sherry Rehman, spokeswoman for the party, said party leaders have been "appealing to our Sindhi supporters not to blame the Punjabis, to see them as our brothers," adding, "We are seeking to unite the country."

But that will be difficult. Resentment of Punjab is widespread in the other provinces, which feel they supply more than their fair share of natural resources and get little in return from the Punjabis, who run the army and, by extension, the country.

"Pakistan is like a house," said Haleemi, the trucker. "It was established for us. But when the army was building it, they didn't give us any choices. They chose the color of the carpet, the design of the kitchen, the style of the windows. We have to live there, but they make all the selections."

The anti-Punjabi sentiment is, in many ways, an extension of animosity that has evolved over the past year. It started out as anti-Musharraf, grew to become anti-military and has now burst into view as anti-Punjabi.

Chema, the unemployed slum resident, believes the only solution is for Sindh to break away from Pakistan and form its own nation. "We will be separate, and we will solve all our basic problems very easily," he said.

That view is not widely held. More common is the belief that Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province need greater autonomy from the central government.

"There has never been an equal and just distribution of resources among the federating units, and that's something that causes big resentment," said Afzal Khan Lala, a senior Pashtun nationalist politician from North-West Frontier Province.

His party advocates control of just four basic functions for the central government in Islamabad: foreign policy, defense, currency and communications. The rest would be left to the provinces to figure out on their own. Without autonomy, he said, "the resentment among smaller provinces can grow to dangerous proportions, putting at risk the survival of Pakistan."

Zafarullah Khan, executive director of Pakistan's Center for Civic Education, has a different solution: an end to military rule, and elections that give minority groups a proper say.

"If the powers that be really want a federal Pakistan, they're going to have to give democracy a chance," Khan said. "Democracy is the way to keep Pakistan together."

Correspondent Emily Wax in Lahore, special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company