Pakistan’s ‘Circle of Dissent’ is Growing


Any form of dissent is viewed as anti-national by the Pakistani state. For decades, Baloch, Sindhi, Muhajir, and Pashtun dissidents have been the targets of state repression. In recent times, even Punjabis have been added to this group. Instead of making the country more cohesive, this policy has only deepened mistrust between the state and Pakistan’s various ethnic groups.

In a recent oped titled ‘Circle of Dissent’, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar writes in detail about the reasons for Baloch, Pashtun, Bengali, Muhajir, Sindhi and Punjabi grievances. In Akhtar’s view over the last decade, “the state apparatus has continued to wield the big stick in ethnic peripheries, and in metropolitan centres too. The circle of dissent is, in fact, widening.”

He cites three factors for the widening of dissent: First, “the ethnic peripheries have spilled over into the centre, and, indeed, into the diaspora. Pakhtun workers, students and small businesspeople have migrated in the millions to urban centres across Pakistan; the Baloch diaspora is littered across the world; Sindhis and Seraikis have migrated in unprecedented numbers to Karachi since the floods of 2010; and other regions like GB have experienced similar out-migration.”

Second, according to Akhtar, “historically dominant Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking masses from the developed, central regions are increasingly stratified and politicised. The pandemic will exacerbate tensions within otherwise pro-establishment segments of Pakistan’s population. To sustain establishment hegemony in central regions is harder than ever; it is not by chance that Punjabi dissidents that have made common cause with the ethnic peripheries have been subjected to increasing coercion, the disappearance of bloggers in 2017 the start of a clear trend.”

Third, “mega projects designed and funded by big players both domestic and foreign are establishing a clearer line than ever between winners and losers of ‘development’. Within Pakistan, there are Bahria Town, big sugar and wheat lobbies, as well as establishment-run logistics, communications and construction companies. In terms of interventions by foreign power, CPEC stands out, but the economic, political and cultural footprint of the Gulf states and the Pakistani state’s major patron of choice, the US, will also continue to engender conflicts over resources and power. The fencing of Gwadar is an example of the ghettoisation of winners and losers that is happening more broadly across the social formation.”

Finally, Akhtar argues for the state ought to reach “out to a young generation of politicised nationalists rather than criminalising them.”