Imaginings: Retrospective on Pakistan

Editor’s Note: The aim of this series is to identify the major trends underway in the various South Asian countries and, based on an analysis of their interplay, to assess the likely consequences for the future. The precise predictions are of less interest than the discussions that are triggered, for it is the process of discussion that deepens our understanding of the changes that are taking place in our countries.

We launch this series with an unusual choice – a paper published in 1982 that speculated on the political implications for Pakistan of a single major trend, the large scale emigration of labor to the Middle East. This retrospective provides an example of the kind of analysis we now wish to undertake for the future. It is also of interest to re-examine the predictions of the paper almost 30 years after its publication and to see the extent to which the predictions were correct, to identify its errors, and to determine the likely reasons for the mistakes.

There were very few opportunities for interactive discussions when this paper was first published which severely limited its usefulness. It is our hope that advances since that time would enable us to extract much greater benefit from the new set of analyses we have in mind. In keeping with the spirit of this blog, these analyses would not be in the academic style of the paper that follows.

The Political Implications of Migration from Pakistan: A Note

By Anjum Altaf

What are the political implications for Pakistan of the continuing emigration of labor to the Middle East? This note speculates briefly on this rather neglected aspect of the migration phenomenon. The present migration is distinct for various reasons. First, the rate at which emigration is taking place has never before occurred in the history of South Asia (1). Over 200,000 people were leaving annually at the height of the exodus and the number is still around 60,000-70,000 at the present moment (2). The magnitude of these figures can be grasped by comparing them to the entire annual addition to the male labor force in Pakistan, which, averaged over the past decade, was around 500,000 (3). Second, the emigrants are comprised mostly of skilled and semi-skilled workers as against the overwhelmingly agrarian composition of previous waves of migration.

For those who maintain that the industrial working class is the spearhead of social change because the peasantry is too impoverished and dispersed to lead an organized movement, the rate and composition of the emigration introduce significant new factors into the picture. First, while it is statistically impossible for every Pakistani to find his (4) fortune overseas, the perception at the individual level is increasingly the contrary. People feel it possible, with a little bit of luck to be among the next batch of emigrants. And, needless to say, it is the perceptions and illusions that are important in shaping the decisions of individuals. Tawney (1978, 20) writing of the English working class, had this in mind when he remarked that the status quo survives ‘…not because the rich exploit the poor, but because too many of the poor admire the rich.’ When this admiration, or aspiration gap, for which the admirers are not to be blamed, is combined with the feeling that the gap can be bridged within the existing rules of the game, the motivation for struggling against the same rules is correspondingly diminished.

In short, the working class has come to believe that it is upwardly mobile. It finds it plausible to think in terms of going overseas, accumulating assets and returning to set itself up as an owner of property. As far back as 1845, Engels (1968, 24-25) had observed that it was the impossibility for the worker to rise out of his social class that transformed the proletariat into a definite class in the population, ‘whereas formerly it had only been a transitional stage towards entering into the middle class.’ Only when one is born a worker and must remain a worker for the rest of one’s life does it become possible for an ‘organised working-class movement to spring up.’ This feeling, at least temporarily, is much weakened in Pakistan.

There is a line of analysis that holds that the proletariat is, in any case, a privileged class in Third World countries and is not to be counted upon to lead a movement for meaningful social change. The added conservatism generated by its perception of upward mobility compromises even the limited role that such analysts are willing to grant it. This conservatism is further abetted by the wage gains of the non-migrating worker consequent upon the massive flight of skills overseas. Casual evidence of this new mood is to be sensed in the frustrations of those attempting to organize the working class in industrial centers like Karachi. The preoccupation of labor with the mechanisms of emigrating has, in their words (5), reduced their already limited effectiveness to a fraction of its former level. In such a situation the policy of the government actually to encourage and facilitate the export of all types of manpower is quite rational from the perspective of the ruling class (6). Not only is this export the largest foreign exchange earner providing the crucial margin between economic collapse and survival, it also provides the political safety valve which obviates the necessity for structural changes in which the ruling groups have little interest.

It is true, that in actual fact the emigration is further polarizing society. What was a fairly homogeneous income stratum is being split into a fraction, those connected with the so-called ‘middle-east class’ rising upwards and the not-so-fortunate majority falling further behind because of some of the economic consequences of emigration, in particular, the inflation caused by the flood of foreign exchange remittances. However, the groups suffering economic decline, mainly those on fixed or slow rising incomes are much more disparate and difficult to organize than the industrial workers. Further, groups like students, teachers, public employees, retirees do not exercise sufficient control, in contrast to industrial workers, over any vital means of production to pose an effective challenge. Thus the prospect of sporadic disturbances, rioting, rebellion is increased at the expense of organized efforts for social reform.

Another significant aspect of the present migration is its voluntary nature. While necessity could possibly be adduced at a deeper level, the choice is perceived to be free and voluntary and again the perception is of prime importance. No overt coercion or persecution of any sort is involved and pull rather than push factors dominate the decision to emigrate. This is to be contrasted with the previous major emigration from South Asia, the movement of 700,000 people to the sugar colonies between 1834 and 1900. Hobsbawm (7) notes that ‘it is in the highest degree unlikely that, left to themselves, Indians would have migrated in any numbers to Trinidad or British Guiana or perhaps even to Mauritius at this period’ (Saha, 1970: Foreword ix).

A voluntary migration is, by its very nature, much more selective than a coerced one. Thus the younger, relatively better educated, the most independent, ambitious and enterprising elements would be among the first to emigrate. These would be precisely the individuals who could be expected to play a leading and dynamic role in any movement for social change. The removal of this group raises the average level of dependence and conservatism of the remainder and further retards the drive for a concerted and coherent movement for change.

Thus all three factors, the rate, composition and voluntary nature of the present emigration create circumstances that tend to inhibit the prospects for social progress in Pakistan while increasing the chances for social chaos (8). Of course, the present cannot be mechanically extrapolated into the indefinite future. Sooner or later the pace of emigration will slacken and the perception of upward mobility would then peter out after a suitable lapse of time. However the process may well leave in its wake a newly arisen small-property owning class that could side more readily with narrow reaction than with progressive change.

This last point needs some elaboration. The emergence of a small-property owning class has clearly disturbed the status-quo in Pakistan. The most immediate consequence has been the inroad into the economic stronghold of the old elites. This is demonstrated by a clear shift of purchasing power observable in the market. However, this economic shift has not been matched by a commensurate shift in social standing. This has initiated a dynamic which at the very least points against a perpetuation of the status quo.

To describe this process formally we can make use of Galtung’s (1980) concept of ‘rank disequilibrium’ as a precursor of social change. In Galtung’s framework groups or classes are ranked on three scales representing economic, political and social status. Only when the major groups or classes are ranked similarly on all three scales is societal equilibrium stable. Otherwise a transitional period, usually marked by conflict, results during which groups contend with each other to restore a new and stable equilibrium.

How is the social dynamic likely to work itself out in Pakistan? Galtung’s scheme clearly fits the bourgeois revolution in Europe and a mistaken analogy might be drawn with that historical evolution in attributing an unambiguously positive role to the prospective class. However, a number of significant differences necessitate a qualification of that scenario. First, the class would largely be a small-property owning and not an investing or merchant one. Second, it would be dispersed widely, in origin and location, over the country and not concentrated in a few and major towns. Third and most important, it would not be unchallenged in its revolutionary role. Unlike the rising bourgeoisie which was the revolutionary class in Europe during the demise of feudalism the presently emerging class would itself be challenged from its left since, at the level of ideology, the latter represents an established revolutionary doctrine in this era.

This would represent a peculiar situation in Pakistan. While the left does not have the mass recognition to mount a serious challenge, its presence is strident enough to frighten the emerging small-property owning class. Left to itself the ambitions of the new class would be bound to come into conflict with the beneficiaries of the status-quo. A coherent strategy could conceivably enable the left to incorporate the dynamism of the new class in its struggle against the established elites. However, the hardening of its present stance especially its anti-private property rhetoric would just as easily drive the new-rich into the reactionary embrace of the old elites. Given that the left is woefully divided and its rhetoric loud but empty, the latter course is much more likely. A social base and situation more akin to that accompanying the rise of fascism in Europe than to that of capitalism in an earlier period thus portends inevitable social change, but in the direction of repression and chaos much more than that of progress.

The analysis presented above is patently speculative and little empirical evidence can be cited in support because of its counterfactual nature (9). However, the aim has been to raise the issue of the political implications of migration for discussion. Irrespective of the merits or justification for social change there are some who are committed to its pursuit. For them, some such analysis is needed to construct a coherent strategy for the future.


I would like to thank Nadeem-ul-Haque for a pertinent critique and valuable additions.

1. For details of the previous great migration from South Asia, the movement of indentured labor to the British sugar colonies, see Saha (1970).

2. For rough estimates of the magnitudes of emigration from Pakistan, see Hoodbhoy (1980).

3. Data for this calculation is taken from the World Bank’s World Development Report (1981, 170).

4. The use of the masculine gender to refer to the typical emigrant simply reflects the fact that most emigrants are male.

5. Personal discussion.

6. The ban on the emigration of medical doctors is the latest restriction to be waived. Doctors have been declared surplus in the country and have been advised to venture abroad to earn ‘name, fame and fortune.’ (News Item: Dawn, Karachi).

7. See Foreword to Saha (1970, ix).

8. The analysis is less relevant for India because its much larger population base and the greater localization of its areas of migration sources prevent the factors from coalescing into a significant force at the national level.

9. The closest parallel is the movement of Turkish and North African labor to Europe following the reconstruction after World War II.


Engels, Friedrich. 1968. The Condition of the Working Class in England, Stanford University Press.

Galtung, Johan. 1980. “Essays in Peace Research: Peace Problems – Some Case Studies,” Vol. V, PRIO Monograph 7, Oslo Institute for Fredsfords kning.

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. 1980. “Emigration from Pakistan: A Critical Analysis”, Pakistan Progressive, Vol. 3 No. 2.

Saha, Panchanan. 1970. Emigration of Indian Labor (1834-1900), Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi.

Tawney, R.H. 1973. “The Religion of Inequality,” in Wealth, Income and Inequality, A.B. Atkinson, ed., Penguin, England.

This paper appeared first in the South Asia Bulletin (Vol. II, No. 2, Fall 1982) published at that time from the University of California at Los Angeles. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.


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