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Helmand/Quetta/Kurram carnage and Michel Foucault

Muhammad Zubair Khan

Muhammad Zubair Khan

Re-plugging my post from Oct 25, 2016: Our friend Saif Nasar shows us very aptly how Michel Foucault would analyze the Quetta attack and discourse surrounding it. I loved his analysis. Consider myself lucky to live in an age where social media could keep you connected with such people. Some of us — who are not very much familiar with the Foucaultean terminology and paradigm (myself one of them) — might find some terms a little unfamiliar and confusing. However, I am sure that would still not prevent us from enjoying the reading.

“We, the Balochs, Hazaras and Pashtuns, are differentially related to the probability of death compared to other ethnic groups in the country; our proximity to death, carried out by militants and the Pakistani state (and, for that matter, even the ethnic groups’ proneness to epidemics and diseases or ‘natural’ death) and the experience of violent ‘uncertain’ death (read massacre) continuously redefines our ethnic identity and spatial relationship (the two categories overlaps in Pakistani context) with the dominant ethnic group (Punjabis) in the country and the state – this relationship, though, differs for each ethnic category as a matter of degree but not fundamentally– and reminds us who we are. (Of course, the local hierarchy and collaborates should not be exonerated in their suppression of the people and alliance with Punjabis).

On the continuum of Pakistani citizenship, we make the lower end; a population that lives on the ‘borderland’ which could be mobilized or turned into reserved army anytime. (Although Punjabis also live along eastern border but the population’s proximity to death is significantly skewed and the politics of place-making along the border is qualitatively different from western border). We have seen this since 1948, just after a year of ‘independence’, when the ‘warrior tribes’ were sent to fight in Kashmir as a non-regular army and later in the event of fight against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan and recently after 9/11 the western border was once again (as ever) made a sanctuary for (which it still is despite ‘successful’ conduction of NAP according to the government’s claims) and nursery to produce fighters.

Let’s not hesitate in accepting that this politics of place-making on the western border is not new; it has a colonial legacy where the ‘tribes’ were not part of regular British force that could be effectively used to undo any malicious advancement of the Czars. Such situation under the (modern) colonial state also define our relationship with it; for the first time in history the population was experiencing centralized and spatial authority aka the modern state. We were not subjects of the state yet under its rule. This ambiguity, as a scholar argues, exploited the population to its fullest. Unlike other subjects of the colonial state we were out of the regime of rights. In our case, reciprocity was wanting: while the state could dominate and use us for any purpose, particularly defense, but it wasn’t legally answerable to us for we did not constitute ‘proper’ subject of the state. Our bodies and lives, hence, were fully claimed by the state where agreements were reached with various tribes to provide fighters during war situation and in turn the tribes were paid.

We were made and raised as mercenary; in other words, we were not subjects of the colonial state despite its full authority over the tribes (or as Mamdani notes that under the guise of ‘self-rule’ tribes were doubly dominated and exploited, in the name of new state authority and the rule of culture). Or in today’s epistemology of Pakistani state we were (and are) non-state actors, not belonging to the state. The conditional citizenship under Pakistani state and employment of tribal population for war/defense proposes thus is a clear continuity of colonial form of governance, unaltered and pure.

This politics of place-making and identity-making i.e. constituting the western border as ‘dangerous’, a reservoir of ‘terrorists’ and declaring the population as ‘militant’, ‘fierce’, and ‘martial race’ will bring death closer upon us. Alternately, this will make other places (read Punjab) safe (or safer), modern, livable, etc. and the population as tolerant (as it is touted that it is the land of Sufis after all), zindadilan (cheerful), civilized and ahead of other groups in their proclivity for literature and arts as opposed to the rough, brute and uneducated people of Baluchistan and KP.

In coming times our exploitative relationship with the state will escalate. While the colonial state claimed our bodies the postcolonial Pakistani state also lay claim to our resources including its supreme control over our lives. We will hear more of the ‘brave’ and ‘resilient’ Balochs and Pashtuns laying down their lives for greater cause, the state/nation, and attaining ‘shahadat’ – a body/subject who strives for and accepts death without questioning his precarious life which is brought upon him and is structurally determined. Where precarity is brought about by neo-liberal governmentality in other places, in our case, it is the colonial conditioning, making the western border as the harbor of death for the sake of defense.

Our closeness to death is not because of imbalance between civil-military relationship. It is not because of the flawed policies of Pakistani army (and the US, new empire); it is not because of institutional supremacy of army over rest of the state and therefore only army should be blamed for our precarious existence. The army draws legitimacy for its actions from wider society and particularly from various discourses upheld mainly and largely by the Punjabis.

The Punjabis are the producers of such discourse and they have monopoly over validation of self-made knowledge and accommodation of different discourse that come largely from other provinces/ethnic groups. Many intellectual, both from left and right who are again largely Punjabis, would tell you that some people are close to death because of institutional conflicts within the state structure. Our problem is ethnic/spatial. Army is just executive force of the larger Punjabi discourse, bringing it from potentiality to realization. The army both participates in producing this discourse and is also affected by it along with the ordinary Punjabis- it certainly does not work in isolation to the larger Punjabi population and its discourses.

The characterizing features of such discourse is that Punjabis are placed on the top of citizenship continuum while other ethnic groups’ citizenship is conditionally warranted and therefore their lives are precarious with utmost uncertainty, the former is undoubtedly patriotic, constitutes proper subject of the state, should have right and access to other provinces’ resources etc. And for the latter everything is conditional, even the right to live.

Death is our citizenship under the postcolonial state; through mutilated bodies of the Balochs the state conjures up its existence, that its authority over the people is still intact and that the state is still capable of calming our bodies and lives and can still keep us away from the regime of rights despite now having proper courts. Rather supremacy of the state over our lives reached new heights: ‘missing persons’; death is not enough, it still leaves residual materially, the dead corps; disappearing is new governmentality, the state matches the power of god, acting from no-where, it is not easily visible, its action cannot be determined in advance, it is unreadable anymore and therefore unpredictable.

This colonial conditioning will remain unabated and it will only change for worse after CPEC as it has proved in yesterday’s attack and before in attack on lawyers’ community. If you haven’t understood what is said above, the problem, in part, lies with you being a Punjabi (not necessarily ethnically though, but having a particular kind of knowledge about other ethnic groups and thus incapable of understanding the reality and life experiences of other ethnic groups) and partly my inability to articulate myself clearly and write well English.”

Writer: Muhammad Zubair Khan

The writer comes from Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan. He has taught law at the University of Peshawar for almost ten years as Assistant Professor. Currently, he is completing PhD from Maurer School of Law, Center of Constitutional Democracy, Indiana University USA. His areas of interest include nationalism, ethnicity, ethno-national conflicts and constitutional design for ethnically divided societies. He can be reached at


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