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Horizontal Inequalities and Violent Conflict in Pakistan: Is There a Link?

This article is an attempt to trace the socio-economic origins of the recent growth of religious militancy and violent conflict in Pakistan. In particular, it examines this important subject in the light of a significant thesis advanced by Frances Stewart that it is "horizontal inequalities" and "failure of the social contract" between the State and the citizens that lie at the heart of most violent conflicts across the developing world.


Horizontal Inequalities and Violent Conflict in Pakistan: Is There a Link?

Sadia M Malik

i nterventions of another nature are also required to curb this menace in the long run.

While recognising the role of international politics and geostrategic factors in understanding the root causes of militancy in Pakistan, the present study goes beyond these political explanations and traces the socio-economic origins of violent conflict and its growth in Pakistan. In

This article is an attempt to trace the socio-economic origins of the recent growth of religious militancy and violent conflict in Pakistan. In particular, it examines this important subject in the light of a significant thesis advanced by Frances Stewart that it is “horizontal inequalities” and “failure of the social contract” between the State and the citizens that lie at the heart of most violent conflicts across the developing world.

Sadia M Malik ( is with the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 22, 2009

ike many other developing countries, the landscape of Pakistan’s history is also marked by conflicts of multiple sorts and nature. These vary from the ethnic conflict in metropolitan Karachi to insurgency in Balochistan and random incidences of sectarian violence elsewhere in the country. In recent years however, Pakistan has seen an unprecedented growth of religious militancy particularly in its north-western territory and the related incidents of terrorism across the country. This is seen by many as posing a serious threat to the peace and security of not only the people of Pakistan but of the entire region and of the world at large.

The government of Pakistan, in the

a ftermath of the incidents of 11 September

2001, became a key ally of the United

States (US) in its “war against terrorism”

and began taking military actions against

these militant groups and their suspected

hideouts in north-western Pakistan in

cluding the Federally Administered Tribal

Areas (FATA). The key pretext of this “war

against terrorism” is based on the premise

that most incidents of terrorism across the

world have linkages to Al Qaida and

Taliban that have their geographical basis

in these areas.

Given the significance of this war and

its expected repercussions on the peace

and stability of the region and that of the

world at large, it is important to study the

key drivers of radicalisation and religious

militancy in Pakistan and to formulate a

comprehensive strategy that is based upon

a holistic assessment of the root causes

of what is referred to as the growing

“Talibanisation” in Pakistan. To this end,

systematic studies that investigate all

dimensions – political, ideological as well

as socio-economic – of the origin and growth

of religious extremism in Pakistan are

absolutely crucial to determine whether

military action alone is enough or

vol xliv no 34

particular, it presents evidence on how socio-economic deprivation, horizontal inequalities and the weakening of social contract between the State and the citizens may have contributed in terms of mobilising support for religious militancy and radicalisation in Pakistan. The article highlights the need to conduct further empirical work to examine, in a more systematic manner, the link between socio-economic factors and violent conflict in Pakistan.

Root Causes: Most academic studies conducted so far, to examine the root causes of radicalisation and “Talibanisation” in Pakistan, have approached the subject from a political and sociological angle. Many of these studies (see e g, Abbas 2004) suggest that the formation of the Taliban as a violent group can be traced back to the cold war era when this political force, known as “Afghan mujahideen” at that time, was mobilised by the US and Pakistan to fight against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. This view is consistent with the argument that identity particularly the one that is associated with ethnicity or even a particular religious ideology is not “primordial”. It is sometimes socially constructed and manifested in order to achieve a particular political or economic objective (Nafziger and Auvinen 2002). The groups are mobilised primarily by raising their ethnic or religious consciousness. This is the view advanced by instrumentalists who see ethnicity and religion being used as a tool to achieve political and economic objectives.

Another popular and important explanation of the growth of radicalisation in Pakistan is the systematic right wing orientation of the society that was achieved deliberately during “Zia era” (1977-87) through a number of legal and administrative policy measures (see e g, Aftab 2008). Many analysts argue however, that despite the gradual radicalisation of


Pakistan’s society and body politic during the Zia era and afterwards, the radical elements in the society did not indulge in violent activities of the sort witnessed today that includes suicide bombings at public as well as private places on a frequent basis. Moreover, the level of organisation that these violent groups have achieved today – as reflected by the establishment of parallel systems of government on a vast array of state territory – is also unprecedented in the history of this country. Many analysts argue that the seeds of this “violent” radicalisation were sown right after the government of Pakistan became a key ally of the US in its “war against terrorism”. In this sense, the growing radicalisation of Pakistan’s society is seen by many as a reaction to western imperialism that continues to date in one form or the other. There is yet another small group of “liberals” in Pakistan who view the present growth of radicalisation in Pakistan in isolation with the geostrategic and political conditions and maintain that this radical religious group known as “Taliban” is striving to gain religious hegemony by imposing its particular religious ideology on the rest of the population.

Observations such as these that trace the political and ideological roots of radicalisation are nevertheless critical to understand the formation of radical militant groups in Pakistan. Yet they offer only a partial explanation of the recent growth of religious militancy and violent conflict in Pakistan. There are important socioeconomic factors that must also be analysed in order to address the root causes of growing radicalisation in the context of Pakistani society. This paper is an attempt to approach this critical subject through the lens of a development economist and to highlight some of the important socioeconomic factors that underlie violent conflict and the growth of religious militancy in Pakistan.

Deprivation and Violent Conflict

While studying the causes and consequences of internal conflicts across the developing world, development economists often attribute the roots of these violent conflicts to the economic and political exclusion of certain population groups and their socio-economic deprivation. Frances Stewart of Oxford University (Stewart Regional inequality in terms of both in2002a, b) for instance, provides anecdotal come as well as non-income dimensions is as well as empirical evidence to show that particularly striking not only across rural it is the “horizontal inequalities” that lie at and urban areas but also across provinces the heart of most violent conflicts across and across districts of the same province. the developing world. Table 1 shows some development indicators

Horizontal inequalities as defined by

Table 1: Selected Development Indicators for Pakistan, Stewart are inequalities – that may be NWFP and FATA (1998)

Indicator Pakistan NWFP FATA

measured across various dimensions such

Literacy ratio (both sexes, %) 43.92 35.41 17.42

as economic, political and social – be-

Male literacy ratio (%) 54.81 51.39 29.51

tween culturally defined groups. These

Female literacy ratio (%) 32.02 18.82 3.00

groups may be defined on the basis of geo-

Population per doctor 1,226 4,916 7,670

graphical affiliation, gender, religion, class,

Population per bed incaste or language, etc. This is different health institutions 1,341 1,594 2,179

from vertical inequality that measures Roads (per sq km) 0.26 0.13 0.17 Source: Government of Pakistan.

inequality between individuals irrespective of their affiliation with a particular of FATA, one of the most conflict prone areas group. According to this view, imbalanced at present and its comparison with the development that involves sharp horizontal provincial as well as the national average. inequalities (group differences) is an im-The table shows that there is a stark differportant cause of conflict across the devel-ence between the human development oping world. These horizontal inequalities indictors in FATA and the national average. may have many dimensions including eco-Male literacy ratio in FATA is one-half of nomic, social and political. For instance, it that of the national average whereas might be the case that some groups are female literacy rate is a staggering 3% marginalised in economic and/or political compared to the national average of 32%. terms and they may use violence as a tool Population per doctor is also in stark conto seek redress of their political and eco-trast to the national average (7,670 versus nomic grievances. 1,226 at the national level).

Stewart also links the root causes of Official estimates on the spatial districonflict in some of the developing countries bution of poverty are almost non-existent to the failure of social contract (Stewart despite the fact that the government does 2002b). According to this hypothesis, the conduct household income and expendirelationship between state and the citi-ture survey at the provincial as well as the zens is based upon a social contract in district level on a regular basis. The data is which citizens accept state authority so not readily available for the purpose of relong as it provides public services and rea-search, yet a few studies conducted by insonable economic conditions. A worsening dependent researchers and organisations of economic conditions and the break-reveal that poverty in Pakistan has a high down of social services may result in con-degree of regional concentration (SPDC flict. Let us examine Pakistan’s case in the 2007). The province of Punjab, for inlight of this theoretical framework. stance, is the most prosperous province,

yet within Punjab, there is a marked dif-Horizontal Inequalities and Violent ference between the northern and the Conflict: During the past one decade or southern districts. Poverty is mostly acute so, there has been an evi-

Figure 1: Trends in Income Inequality in Pakistan (2001-06)

dence of growing polarisa-

Gini coefficient


tion in Pakistan between the

“haves” and the “have-nots”. 0.3 Despite a reasonable level of


overall economic growth and


the subsequent reduction in


poverty on average, inequality as measured by the Gini co


efficient has been on rise 0.275

2001 2005 2006 (Figure 1). Source: Government of Pakistan, 2008.

august 22, 2009 vol xliv no 34

Economic & Political Weekly


and its incidence is much higher in southern Punjab (Table 2).

Table 2: The Incidence of Poverty in Punjab, Pakistan by District (2004-05)

Southern Percentage of Northern Percentage of
Districts Population Districts Population
Below the Below the
Poverty Line Poverty Line
Rahimyar Khan 45.87 Rawalpindi 11.32
Bahawalpur 39.46 Attock 14.11
Rajanpur 54.16 Chakwal 18.09
Dera Ghazi Khan 51.01 Sialkot 13.96
Muzaffargarh 56.29 Jhelum 12.32
Multan 38.40 Gujarat 12.72
Lodhran 48.37 Sargodha 25.66
Bahawalnagar 32.45 Narowal 19.30
Vihari 30.03 Gujranwala 19.04
Khanewal 38.84 Lahore 11.60
Layyah 40.86 Sheikhupara 26.20

Source: SPDC (2007).

In some of the southern districts such as the district of Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan and Bahawalpur, the incidence of poverty is even higher than the districts of rural Sindh that are often counted amongst the most impoverished areas of Pakistan. Interestingly, these are the very districts that also happen to be the “fertile recruiting ground”, as one study by Ahmed (2008) puts it, for groups that are involved in suicide bombings in Pakistan. The same study reveals that many of the seminaries established during the days of state-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan were set up in southern Punjab. The Bahawalpur district alone has around 638 registered seminaries apart from hundreds of unregistered ones. Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant group founded by Maulana Masood Azhar, has its strongest presence in the southern districts of Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Layyah, Bhakkar and Rahimyar Khan. Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, according to this study, dominates in Muzaffargarh and Multan that are again amongst the poorest districts of southern Punjab.

Table 2 shows striking difference between the incidence of poverty in the southern and northern districts of Punjab. It does not appear to be a coincidence, therefore, that radicalisation and militancy is gaining faster support in south of Punjab where poverty is rampant and illiteracy and unemployment is high leading to relatively greater potential of unemployed and frustrated youth providing support to the militant activities. This is an important hypothesis that needs to be tested in a more rigorous and a systematic manner.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 22, 2009

The concentration of political and eco- Failure of Social Contract: As discussed
nomic power is yet another striking fea earlier, the relationship between the citizens
ture of Pakistan. One aspect of this con and state is based upon a social contract in
centration is evident from the absence of a which citizens accept state authority so long
comprehensive land reforms programme as it provides public services and reason
throughout its history. The pattern of land able economic conditions. When the state
ownership is highly inequitable with the fails to provide adequate social services to
top 2.5% of the households owning over its vast majority of the population, the result
40% of the total cultivated area whereas is growing deprivation of the ordinary
half of all rural households have no access people and the emergence of non-state
to land (Gazdar 2003). One may argue actors that try to exploit the vulnerabilities
that such conditions prevail in other of people and fill in the gaps that are
d eveloping countries, yet not all of these supposed to be addressed by the state.
countries are confronted by violent con- For the purposes of present analysis, it is
flict. In this perspective, it is important to instructive to highlight two major failures of
understand that in the present case of governance in Pakistan that seem to have a
Pakistan, socio-economic deprivation and direct relationship with the mobilisation of
inequality may not be the root cause per support for radicalisation and militancy.
say as in a standard “cause” and “effect” One is the failure of state in providing quality
type of a framework, yet many of these education to a great majority of its people
deprivations and socio-economic injustices in an equitable manner. Over the years, the
may very well fuel these conflicts and state is seen as abdicating its role in favour
result in a further growth of radicalisation. of the private sector in the provision of
Interestingly a recent article in the New education. This has resulted in a visible
York Times (Perlez and Shah 2009) suggests deterioration in the quality of public edu
that the Taliban in Pakistan are in fact en cation on the one hand and private sector
gineering a class revolt by exploiting the education remaining expensive and un
deep divide between a small group of affordable particularly for low income
wealthy landlords and their landless tenants. groups, on the other. This gap that is left by
The socio-economic deprivation of ma the state in the provision of affordable edu
jority of the population is evident from the cation to all and other safety nets is filled
global ranking of Pakistan that remains partly by the madrasa education. Clearly,
low and in some cases even below that of the majority, if not all, of the students who
sub-Saharan Africa. In the area of education opt for madrasas are the ones who are too
for instance, the UNESCO (2007) reveals poor to afford basic food, shelter and cloth
that Pakistan contain one of the highest ing let alone education. The madrasas pro
number of out of schoolchildren in the vide them with free food, shelter and cloth
world. Education of course comes later in ing apart from giving them some religious
terms of priorities when the immediate education. To a large extent therefore, it is
survival of the people is under threat. A the gap in public provision of quality edu
great majority of the population in the cation and other safety nets that these
country is still struggling to have access to madrasas have filled.
some of the basic necessities for their sur- Another gap left by the State with refer
vival such as access to clean drinking ence to its potential relationship with the
water and sanitation. Around 60% of the present crisis is the weak ability of the
population in Pakistan does not have ac- State to provide speedy justice to ordinary
cess to improved sanitation. Access to ba people at the grass roots level. Interestingly,
sic health facilities is also extremely low. a perceptions survey of around 2,000 adults,
In the absence of any social security conducted recently by the Community
arrangements, the bulk of Pakistan’s Appraisal and Motivation Programme,
p opulation remains vulnerable to disease, (CAMP) in FATA reveal that an overwhelming
i lliteracy, poverty, and economic shocks. majority (73%) of the sample population
Many of these vulnerabilities serve as a in FATA believes that the most important
breeding ground for terrorism for many service that the government of Pakistan
of the country’s poorly educated and should provide in their area is “justice”
u nemployed youth. followed by “education and schools” (65%).
vol xliv no 34 23


Many analysts view the recent implementation of “Nizam-e-Adl regulation” in conflict affected districts of the North-West Frontier Province as a reflection of the failure of state to administer speedy justice to its people. Other gaps also abound, particularly with reference to the

Figure 2: People’s Perception in FATA Regarding the Most Important Service That the GOP Should Provide in Their Region

prevent them from becoming fodder


Education and school

Hospital and health

Electricity supply

Trackling terrorism

Water and sanitation



Food supply

Gas supply


Other Source: CAMP 2008.

0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70

structure of governance which, if not addressed by the State are bound to be exploited by the non-state actors to attain their public acceptability and support. These include deficit in the ability of the State to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizen and to maintain law and order.


Violent conflict and growing religious militancy in Pakistan is a complex pheno menon with multiple roots that transcend from g eostrategic factors to socio-economic deprivation, regional inequality and the failure of governance. A holistic assessment of all these factors must be taken into account while formulating an effective strategy to resist the growth of radicalisation and militancy in Pakistan. Such a strategy must not rely on military force alone but should also address the underlying conditions that continue to foster support to these radical elements. The current military action that the government of Pakistan is undertaking to tackle the problem of growing religious militancy and terrorism must be accompanied by some non-military tactics for a long-term solution to this problem.

Such a multi-pronged strategy must include at least three important components.

First, it must include an agenda of social uplift and economic inclusion of all groups and individuals. The process of economic growth that enriches few groups and regions while depriving others is bound to fuel conflict and radicalisation in the society. Adequate employment opportunities must be created for the youth so as to

80 for mili tancy and violent activities. The current demographic transition that Pakistan is undergoing is adding an unusually large proportion to the young population belonging to the working age group. Unless, this growing population of youth is provided adequate employment opportunities, it will continue to provide fodder to the militant activities of radical religious groups. While recognising the fundamental right of every individual to have access to basic social services such as education and basic health, steps must be taken to ensure an equitable access to opportunities to the entire

population irrespective of the economic and social standing of the individuals.

Second, the concentration of economic and political power that breeds and sustains poverty and deprivation of the vast majority of the population must be resisted. An agenda of broad-based reforms that include comprehensive land reforms must be advocated and its long-term significance highlighted. Third, substantive reforms must be taken to improve the structure of governance and establish the writ of the State in a universal manner. Popular movements such as the recent lawyers’ movement in Pakistan that reflect the aspirations of the Pakistani people to attain the rule of law and the supremacy of judiciary should transcend beyond the restoration of the chief justice (that was nevertheless important as it symbolises the supremacy of judiciary as an institution) towards bringing about broad-based governance reforms at the grass roots level that includes speedy justice to the ordinary people.


Abbas, Hassan (2004): Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror (London: ME Sharpe).

Aftab, Safiya (2008): “Poverty and Militancy”, Journal of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), No 1.

Ahmed, Maqbool (2008): “Route to Roots”, The Herald Annual, Pakistan, April.

CAMP (2008): “Understanding FATA: Attitude towards Governance, Religion and Society in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas”, Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme, Volume II, accessed on 14 May 2009.

Gazdar, Haris (2003): “The Land Question”, Research paper published by Collective for Social Science Research.

Government of Pakistan (2008): Pakistan Economic Survey 2007-08, Finance Division, Economic Advisor’s Wing, Islamabad.

Nafziger, E Wayne and Juha Auvinen (2002): “Economic Development, Inequality, War and State Violence”, World Development, Vol 30(2), pp 153-63.

Perlez, Jane and Zubair Shah (2009): “Taliban Exploit Class Rifts in Pakistan”, The New York Times, 17 April.

SPDC (2007): “Income Poverty at District Level: An Application of Small Area Estimation Technique”, Social Policy and Development Centre, Research Report No 70.

Stewart, Frances, Fitzgerald Valpy and Associates (2001): War and Underdevelopment: The Economic and Social Consequences of Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Stewart, Frances (2002a): “Horizontal Inequalities: A Neglected Dimension of Development”, WIDER Annual Lectures 5.

– (2002b): “Root Causes of Violent Conflict in Developing Countries”, British Medical Journal, 324: 342-45

UNESCO (2007): Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007 (Paris: UNESCO).

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august 22, 2009 vol xliv no 34

Economic & Political Weekly

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