A Fateful Reckoning

Pakistan Census 2017

Cameramen and photographers document as a census enumerator (R) enters in a building during Pakistan’s 6th population census in Karachi, Pakistan

A Fateful Reckoning

€‹Pakistan has deployed 118,000 public servants and 200,000 soldiers to conduct its first census in 19 years. In a country that has grown by one-third since its last count (1998) and suffered numerous wars, natural catastrophes, and uncontrolled urban expansion, the stakes for who gets counted, and how accurately, have never been higher.

A census enumerator (R) along with a Pakistan Army soldier notes details outside a house during Pakistan’s 6th population census in Karachi, Pakistan March 15, 2017.

As the walls of every inner city public elementary school remind our youth, “knowledge is power.” Whether one attributes the statement to Foucault or Mr. Rogers, the fact remains the same—to rule one must administer, to administer one must know. If the essence of politics is “who gets what, when, and how,” then national censuses are the lynchpin for everything in the age of mass democracy: budgetary spending, representation, infrastructure, services, and pork barrel employment, to name but a few.

In a state such as Pakistan with acute regional animosities, longstanding religious and ethnic cleavages, and a federal apparatus the legitimacy of which is all too often psychologically, militarily, and politically impalpable, the first census in 19 years is a critical moment in the country’s political history. The only other countries on earth not to hold censuses since 2000 are Lebanon (last polled in 1936), Afghanistan (1975), and Somalia (1961).

Culturally, socially, and politically dominated by the province of Punjab since independence and partition, much of the domineering nature of the country’s federal system has hinged upon the numerical superiority of that province—it had 55.6% of the population in the last census. Yet as 118,000 public servants and 200,000 soldiers take to Pakistan’s streets and sidewalks in the coming weeks to help make a headcount of the world’s sixth most populous country, the fate of more than Punjab hangs in the balance: the millions of inhabitants of Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are also determined to get a fair shake.

Skeptics will say this is merely stating the obvious. Yet a cursory glance at Pakistan’s demographic changes over the past few generations reveals a dizzying array of revolutionary social reconfigurations. For starters, the urban-rural divide. Though Pakistan is something of a global outlier in still having a predominantly rural population, that figure fell from 78% in 1960 to merely 61% in 2015. Falling by 3% per decade, the country is on pace to be lean urban by 2045, if not sooner. Though this mightn’t sound like a radical transformation, it is: for a (rural) river valley civilization that has been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years, the importance of the shift to an urban state and society cannot be overstated.

For starters, this will augur monumental political challenges, as the country’s traditional, rural Punjabi landowning class is forced to cede political (and social and economic) power to the masses of Pakistan’s burgeoning metropolises outside of Punjab. If the case of Karachi is anything to go by—a city whose urban core is dominated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party founded and still dominated by Mohajirs (Muslim migrants who fled India after partition) but constantly, and often violently, challenged by the People’s Party, which is supported by ethnic Sindhis, the majority of Karachi’s province (Sindh), and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest party in Pakistan advocating for sharia law—then the transition will not be seamless.

The census will also reveal an entirely different country from the one counted in previoius decades. Two censuses ago (1981), Pakistan had 80 million people; in the last (1998), it had 135 million. This time around, it is expected to have over 200 million, which means it has added roughly the population of the UK to its rolls since the late 1990s.

Texas instruments for justice

It is not just regional, ethnic, and religious minorities who fear being mis- (read: under-) counted in the coming weeks; the population of the country’s women and girls was also largely inaccurate the last time a total count was made. Part of this was due to strict religious and social codes that prevent male census-takers from laying eyes upon female strangers, much less counting them. The solution, it would seem, lies in hiring (far) more female roll-takers. Yet, according to human rights activsts, not a single female enumerator has been appointed in the entire province of Punjab, the population of which is estimated at 101.5 million.

However, the biggest fears (for a country still dominated by men) center around region, ethnicity, and religion. As things stand, Punjab holds 183 of the country’s 342 seats in the national assembly (53.5%), allowing it to unilaterally elect the prime minister, should it so choose. That the abundantly fertile and densely populated river valley around which Punjab is centered is the country’s “historic heart” and by far its most populous to some degree justifies disproportionate exercise of political power.

On the other hand, any cursory reading of Pakistani history reveals another inconvenient, if fundamental, truth: the post-independence development and consolidation of the country has largely been a continuation of British colonial policy, with the major caveat that Punjab (23% of the country’s landmass) simply replaced the departing British in the new project of Pakistani nation-building.

The country’s two most powerful institutions, the army and the civil service, are not only strictly modeled after their British precursors, but institutionally dominated by Punjabis, a people who in many regards un/consciously see themselves as carrying out the same task of bringing governance and civilization to the country’s north- and southwestern badlands.

Not all quiet on the northwestern front

Thus are fears rampant among Pashtuns, the country’s second largest ethnic group who make up around 15% of the country’s population and are centered around the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (a province officially known until 2010 by its Raj-era name, the Northwest Frontier Province), that they won’t be proportionally counted. As the general secretary of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist outfit, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, put it, “The federal government had planned to manipulate census figures to maintain the hegemony of Punjab over smaller provinces.”

Due to a lack of local equipment, the party also fears that numbers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is almost exclusively made up of Pashtuns, will be counted in the capital of Islamabad, rather than at home. Stating Pashtuns’ lack of faith in the ongoing census, Hussein added that many might not accept the results.

Nonetheless, the census is historically critical for the province on two important fronts: first, it will give the state a measure of knowledge about what’s left, to put it almost too bluntly, of the population after 13 years of war(s) on terror, whether led by Washington or Islamabad, in which the vast majority of both (non-state) combatants and victims were Pashtuns.

Second, the census will incorporate FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) for the very first time, a move that will not only add 4-5 million to the latter’s rolls, thereby boosting its (chances of increased) parliamentary representation, but also consolidating two fiendishly difficult areas to govern into one, and bringing the tribal areas into the country’s “political mainstream” for the first time in Pakistani history.

Yet all that multiplies isn’t mercury; someone will have to pay for the administration of FATA once it’s incorporated into KP, a bill the transfer of which from Islamabad to Peshawar, the capital of KP province, has yet to be hashed out. Though an enlarged KP stands to gain more NFC awards (National Financial Commission—a budgetary transfer scheme inaugurated in 1951 to more equitably distribute federal funds across Pakistan’s four provinces), any increased share in federal divisible pool (FDP) funds, another critical source of federal largesse, will have to come at the expense of Sindh or Balochistan, both of which have so far shown stiff resistance.

Going for broke in Balochistan

Further south in Balochistan, a province that accounts for 40% of Pakistan’s landmass but scarcely 5% of its population, it is local (i.e. nationalist) Balochs who are most opposed to the ongoing census. A harsh climate steeped in decades of war between separatists and the Pakistani state, many Balochis fear the census will confirm their numerical minority in their own homeland.

To be sure, not only are there growing numbers of Sindhis, Punjabis, Hazaras (a Persian-speaking, mostly Shia minority originally from Afghanistan), and Pashtuns in the province; of the millions of (ethnically Pashtun) Afghans that have sought refuge in Pakistan, a great many crossed their country’s 1,165km border with Balochistan to settle in the latter.

Officially, Pakistan already hosts the third-largest refugee population in the world, some 1.7 million people. But with one of the world’s most porous and ethnically contiguous borders, the demarcation power of the “Durand Line,” which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, is scarcely more sovereign today than it was when drawn up by British civil servant Sir Mortimer Durand in 1896.

Cutting across the Pashtun heartland, the Durand Line has been crossed by millions of Afghans since the Soviet invasion of 1979, with unofficial estimates suggesting a million (non-Baloch) Afghans now live in Balochistan. Thus are fears ripe and real among separatist Balochs that, instead of boosting their influence in Islamabad, the census will merely confirm their minority status (estimated between 40-45% of the province’s population) and stiffen Islamabad’s resolve in quelling their clamor for greater autonomy.

Thus did Mir Hasil Bizenjo, chief of the National Party and the incumbent federal minister for ports and shipping, argue in December 2016 that the census should be put off in Balochistan and KP until the “four million Afghan refugees” return to their country and every Baloch in exile returns to his.

Since many of the Afghans residing in Balochistan possess computerized national identity cards (CNICs), which allow them to vote, pay their utilities bill, and travel without restrictions, the fears that their presence will tilt the balance of the census in favor of Pashtuns are real. Though Bizenjo’s demands are unlikely to meet with satisfaction, they highlight the census’ political faultlines all too aptly.

The wages of Sindh

One of the great ironies—or simply raw realities—of Pakistani political life is that Mohajirs, the descendants of Indian Muslims who fled to Pakistan after Partition, are often referred to as the “Urdu-speaking minority” in the state of Sindh, whose capital, Karachi, the country’s largest city (24 million), they mostly inhabit. That speaking Urdu, Pakistan’s national and presumably unifying language, should set a group apart as a minority says a great deal about the challenges Islamabad faces in uniting and governing the world’s sixth-most populous country.

Though Urdu-speaking Mohajirs have long been politically dominant in Karachi, their overall position in the province of Sindh is demographically slipping. In the 1981 census, they accounted for 24% of the population, in 1998 only 21%. That they’ll now dip below 20% for the first time is all but guaranteed.

Not surprisingly, the Sindhi-speaking percentage of the province rose from 55.7% to 59%. That being said, this year’s census is expected to tell much more than a tale of creeping ethno-lingual homogenization in Sindh: after all, the bulk of migrants who’ve made their way to Karachi in the past two decades have been Pashtuns from KP fleeing terror, war, and displacement, not to mention those who came from all over Pakistan as a result of the apocalyptic 2010 floods.

As such, the real question in Karachi and broader Sindh is whether and to what extent Mohajirs and other minorities will identify as being “Sindhi” on the national census in the interest of “regional solidarity.” When a leading advisor to the province’s Chief Minister of Information urged Urdu-speaking minorities to identity as “Sindhi” on the census earlier this year, it set off a storm of controversy. Pamphlets soon flooded the streets urging Mohajirs not to mortgage their future to “Sindhi waderas” (i.e. “grasping, abusive landlords”), while Sindhi chauvinists stressed the frivolity of enlarging their club with members unbecoming.

A third and final challenge in the state of Sindh, the population of which at the time of the 1998 census was 30.4 million but is now expected to hover around 55 million, is that some 30% of its inhabitants lack computerized national ID cards. Whatever these persons’ ethno-linguistic identity, if they are not registered in the coming weeks, the province risks being massively undercounted.

Knowledge is power

In demographically booming, cash-strapped, ethno-linguistically precarious, and fiendishly difficult-to-govern states such as Pakistan, censuses may appear to be a “wicked problem;” like global warming, a predicament that offers no clear solutions—only better or worse responses.

Dividing a pie that refuses to grow as quickly as the mouths it must feed is not for the faint-hearted; but refusing to do so is all the more folly. Whoever the (absolute) “regional” losers wind up being, the state and, with a little luck, society, will prove the winners. With much-needed information on urbanization, gender ratios, inter- and intra-provincial migration, and unemployment, the census will arm the state with the tools it needs to govern. Whither it will then use them remains a separate question.