Lahore market street The unfinished project of decolonisation: a revisionist reading of Pakistan at 75Street scene in Lahore and the cover of the special edition of the Round Table Journal. [strreet scene: Alamy stock]

[This is an excerpt from an article in the current special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs at Pakistan at 75.]

Pakistan at 75

If the ‘politics of resistance’ in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the organic emergence of social forces like workers, peasants and progressive intellectuals with a stake in genuine transformation of state and society, then Pakistan at 75 also boasts an organic social force that can be the vanguard of a rehabilitated project of decolonisation – youth.

Of Pakistan’s current population of approximately 230 million, 63% are below the age of 29 (United Nations Development Programme UNDP, Citation2018). Let me clarify why I believe that it is only by imagining and effecting a meaningful project of decolonisation – and how this horizon in the current conjuncture is distinct from the historic project of the 1960s and 1970s – that Pakistan’s young majority can meet its fundamental needs, in both material and non-material realms.

On the one hand, much about Pakistan’s present maps seamlessly onto its colonial past; a highly unequal society, not only in class terms but also with regard to uneven development across ethnic-national lines, and, perhaps most notably, gender. While the structure of power has come to accommodate vernacular interests over time, a significant majority of Pakistanis remain deprived of access to basic material needs. More than 25 million children remain out of school, child nutrition rates are poorer than in other South Asian and some sub-Saharan African countries and maternal and girl-child mortality is still unacceptably high (United Nations Development Programme, Citation2021).

Special edition: Pakistan at 75
Research Article – The rocky road to modernity: an assessment of Pakistan’s 75 years
Opinion – Pakistan at 75: a mixed record

Disaggregated across ethnic-national regions, it is sufficiently clear that the legacies of the British Raj remain intact – the agrarian heartland of central Punjab, with Lahore at its heart, remains the most developed part of the country, with Sindhi, Pashtun, Siraiki, Baloch, Gilgit-Baltistani and other ethnic peripheries noticeably deprived of public infrastructure whilst also being subjected to violent and punitive logics of (post) colonial statecraft (Akhtar, Citation2022b).

Future prospects for Pakistan’s youthful majority, across both ethnic peripheries and developed core regions, are dismal. Unemployment rates for women in the age bracket of 20–29 are as high as 20%. Joblessness is high amongst highly educated young men and women – 51% for women and 16% for men (Haque & Nayab, Citation2022).

As far as the global and regional political economy is concerned, Pakistan continues to rely heavily on geo-political rents as well as multilateral development assistance, its external debt having spiralled to more than US$120 bn. Meanwhile, its import bill increases rapidly in proportion to its oil dependence and the desires for ostentatious consumption amongst affluent – and even aspiring – social segments. Finally, its major exports reflect colonial-era continuities; textiles and low-skilled labour are the country’s biggest sources of external earnings (Zaidi, Citation2015).

I should note here that bilateral and multilateral donors like the US and IMF respectively have willingly patronised the military establishment in particular, and a largely self-interested Pakistani ruling class in general, and thereby kept Pakistan locked into a cycle of dependency. Successive Pakistani regimes have served the military-strategic interests of both western and Gulf patron states, as well as the more explicitly capitalistic needs of foreign investors and multinational companies (Akhtar, Citation2013).

It is more than a little ironic that Pakistani statecraft continues to be heavily tinged with ideological claims of ‘national security’ and state sovereignty when in fact the military establishment and mainstream bourgeois parties have consistently demonstrated neither the will to resist the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and its sister institutions nor a desire to disentangle Pakistan from the geopolitical wranglings of big powers like the US, and, increasingly China.

Introduction to special edition – Pakistan at 75
India at 75 – July 2022 special edition

Indeed, the Chinese footprint in Pakistan has grown steadily since the turn of the millennium, culminating in the announcement of the US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015. This massive developmental intervention was hailed as a ‘game-changer’ and the springboard of an era of massive prosperity for Pakistan’s youthful masses. To date, however, CPEC projects have tended to reinforce ethnic-national regional divides and ecological degradation with few employment generation effects (Akhtar, Citation2018b).

Nevertheless, it is worth considering the extent to which China’s growing influence in Pakistan – and indeed its emergence as global superpower to challenge the United States – could contribute to the project of decolonisation with which this article is concerned. Beijing was of course one of the movers and shakers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and China’s inexorable rise corresponds to the shift in global industrial production away from the capitalist west.

As such, however, China’s future trajectory and a prospective Chinese-dominated global order remains difficult to predict. The current Chinese leadership has claimed to be paving the way for the birth of an ‘ecological civilisation’ and has in recent times promised to stop funding coal production overseas. But almost all of Pakistan’s expanding energy capacity is due to coal-fired power production, and Chinese funding has been crucial in this regard.

To be sure, the question of ecology stands to greatly affect the future wellbeing of Pakistan’s young majority. As one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world, Pakistan faces a plethora of challenges, including flash floods, a declining water table, glacier melts, the destruction of coastal deltas and severe air pollution as well as warming in the central plain regions. Yet, as with so many major matters of contemporary concern, ecological challenges have been met only with populist sloganeering.

To return to the subject of decolonisation: if Pakistan’s ruling class is demonstrating little understanding or concern for the imperative of ecological regeneration, then western governments and the corporate interests that they protect are even more culpable for refusing to acknowledge historical responsibility for climate change. Indeed, instead of undertaking the necessary steps to reduce emissions and other contributors to global warming – so as to keep within the threshold of 1.5 degree Celsius – western corporate and governing elites have inaugurated a new regime of ‘carbon colonialism’ (Bumpus & Liverman, Citation2010).

In this sense alone, a contemporary project of decolonisation must be distinct from the relatively uncritical modernisation strategies that informed the developmental model of Third World nationalism between the 1950s and 1970s. The most urgent imperative is certainly to compel the western capitalist countries to accept most of the historical burden of nature’s despoilation, but the rapid monetisation of land and other natural resources within post-colonial countries themselves must also be redressed.

More generally, a land reform agenda must be revitalised; here I mean not only the classic redistribution strategy of confiscating agricultural land from big owners to parcel out to small and landless farmers but also an urban land reform to regulate speculative real estate development in particular, the costs of which are currently borne by urban working-class populations that are regularly dispossessed from katchi abadis (squatter settlements) and deprived of even subsistence livelihoods (Akhtar & Rashid, Citation2021).

Finally, there can be no genuine transformation of Pakistani state and society without a shedding of the country’s garrison inheritance. The military’s domination in the economic, political and ideological spheres is reflected in numerous ways: large defence budgets and minuscule spending on health, education, public housing and other basic needs for working people; a perpetual siege mentality with regards to relations with neighbouring countries, India most of all; and, an emaciated political and intellectual mainstream that refuses to name continuities in colonial statecraft. The project of decolonisation must be centred in long-suffering ethnic peripheries as well as working people and oppressed genders.

I should note here that emancipation of the ethnic peripheries as well as oppressed genders demands attention to the decolonisation of culture as much as political-economic structures. To recognise Pakistan as a multi-national state is to accord equal status to the various ethnic-linguistic groups that constitute it. Similarly, only by undoing patriarchal structures – which give rise to gruesome forms of everyday violence – can decolonisation be a truly meaningful horizon for women, girls and oppressed minorities more generally.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.