My first memory of social unrest is from the late 60s when students’ protests forced Ayub Khan to step down. “....…that twenty two families controlled 70 percent of manufacturing and 90 percent of banking and insurance business in the country jolted his regime to its foundation,” says Dr Meekal Ahmed in the book, Pakistan, Beyond the Crisis State.

Social unrest may be defined as organised and unorganised activities such as protests, strikes, lootings and riots by a group of people directed against government or other groups, causing breakdown of social fabric, metamorphosing, under enabling conditions, into ethnic cleansing or civil war or changing the course of history through a revolution. It is mostly triggered by economic problems, which in essence are:

a) Poverty, signified not only by the shortage of resources, but also of opportunity, and

b) Inequality, not only of income, but also of accumulated wealth as well as access to land, education, employment and exclusion from decision making hierarchy.

Both breed anger, sense of injustice and hopelessness and foster feelings of frustration and disempowerment, made worse by the presence of islands of opulence midst a sea of poverty where riches are paraded on television and other media.

The revolt against Ayub Khan, expected to usher in an era of democracy, equated with economic justice, turned out to be a mirage. Since then every oasis of democracy has been as barren and cruel as the desert of dictatorship, proving that the root cause of the problem is not the form of government, but inequality of wealth and power. Political democracy without democratisation of wealth is meaningless.

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Poverty, inequality and social unrest have been the hallmark of developing countries, but after the collapse of the USSR, capitalism’s unabated fury and ascendency resulting in financial meltdown, austerity measures, joblessness, and concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands, has left even the developed world vulnerable to it, evidenced by scenes from around the world: 1999 Seattle riots during WTO meeting; August 2011 UK riots, 2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement and now Chicago teachers’ strike in the USA; series of Greek protests in 2010-2012; movement in Spain against welfare cuts and unemployment, and many others. At the heart of Arab uprising is the unjust power structure, excluding masses from the decision making process.

Even though social unrest has become a daily phenomenon all over Pakistan, some areas are hit harder than others, reasons are complex but a common thread runs through them all, i.e. economic injustice.

Grievances of Baloch people about discrimination in allocation of resources and power sharing structure of the country is at the heart of violence against Punjabis, who have become symbols of this discrimination. Brewing resentment and inability or unwillingness of the state to address this issue fairly has led to the separatist movement.

Violence in Karachi is fundamentally a struggle to control the city’s resources, made worse by influx of large ethnic groups, worsening competition for already meagre resources, just like in the USA where immigrants are welcomed in times of prosperity and resented during hard times. In Karachi, presence of powerful vested interest groups like land mafia, bhatta groups and armed gangs backed by various political parties complicate the situation.

The recent Rimsha blasphemy case is most likely an attempt to extort land from the Christian minority. The issue of Shia killings and other religious extremist actions is complex and multi-factorial, but one major reason is the proxy war between external forces to gain control over the region’s resources.

Weak state institutions, lack of mechanisms to address grievances and when people have nothing to lose, lower the threshold for social unrest. Historically, first response of the state, a representative of the elite, is to use force to quell people uprising. Initially, this may succeed, but in the long run it back fires, as we are witnessing in Balochistan.

When cost of using force becomes higher than giving some concessions to the poor, political and economic reforms are implemented. For example, in the West, voting rights were extended, social safety net programmes were set up and welfare programmes were introduced when the wealthy were threatened by the rise of socialism. More recently, financial handouts to Saudi citizens by the King were an attempt to avert the danger of spread of Arab Spring. Or the Balochistan Development Package was announced.

So, what is to be done? I believe that the only answer is a fundamental, structural change in the current economic system, a change which reduces income gap, minimises accumulation of wealth and corrects historic injustice.

I quote the following paragraph from, Inheritance of Loss, a novel by Kiran Desai: “The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed. They, amid extreme poverty, were baldly richer, and the statistics of difference were being broadcast over loudspeakers, written loudly across walls. The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out that they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations.”

In Pakistan, unless this debt is paid, there will be anarchy and destruction, if not today, then tomorrow. So who will pay the debt? Rich will not do it; poor can’t do it, leaving the burden on the shoulders of the middle class. There is a need for a conscious, conscientious and organised effort for economic justice. Will Pakistani middle class rise to the challenge? They have the most to lose!

The writer has been practicing Family Medicine in Florida since 1983. She is one of the founding members of the Pakistani American Association of Tampa Bay; was on the board of PAKPAC, which is a lobbying organisation for Pakistani causes in the US; and former president of the Fatima Jinnah Medical College Alumni. Email: shahnazk@gmail.com