THE CITIZEN, Published 24 January 2017
Excerpt from a chapter in the book ‘A Question of Identity and Ideology’
For Pakistan’s leaders, defining a Pakistani identity was a critical issue for two reasons. First, the geographical areas that came to constitute Pakistan had never before existed as a country.
Second, the identity had to be different and distinct from India since Pakistan had been carved out of India and as a new country with an unfamiliar name had to be acknowledged by the world as such.
This need for distinctiveness led to the emphasis of an identity that was Islamic, taking its cue from the two-nation theory that was the philosophy behind Pakistan’s creation.
Reflecting the preoccupation with a definition for Pakistani identity, as late as 2000, the newspaper Dawn stated: ‘Since its inception Pakistan has faced the monumental task to spell out an identity different from the Indian identity. Born from the division of the old civilization of India, Pakistan has struggled for constructing its own, a culture which will not only be different from the Indian culture but that the whole world would acknowledge.’
At its creation, Pakistan inherited four provinces in the west (Balochistan, NWFP, Punjab and Sindh), and one in the east. The challenge for the new state was to weld these disparate identities into one Pakistani identity.
The country was founded on the basis… that religion could bind diverse ethno-linguistic identities. The forging of a unique religion-based Pakistani identity, however, was problematic because it had to be forged in a geographical area that had historical states with significant linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversities and where people instinctively thought of themselves as Bengalis, Sindhis, Baloch, Pakhtuns, Seraikis rather than as Pakistanis.
Additionally, these provinces were not even in the forefront of the Pakistan movement and had no shared history. Given their Muslim majorities, there was never any danger to Islam. Yet, Pakistan largely ignored the diversity of its people and tried to superimpose a common Islam-based Pakistani identity on the dominant ethno-linguistic identity. This would eventually cost the state half its territory. Failure to acknowledge ethnic diversity in the elusive quest of a national identity was a challenge in 1947. It remains a challenge even after seventy years.
Continuing with the two-nation theory after Pakistan’s creation generated problems of its own. It meant that Pakistan would need a ‘Hindu’ India constantly as an essential reference point for its raison d’être. This ensured that Pakistan could not succeed in evolving a separate and positive national identity. Its national identity would continue to be a negative, anti-India narrative.
The moot question is why, despite the passage of almost seven decades, Pakistan has not been able to develop an overarching national identity. There is no easy answer but the fact is that the alienation of different ethnic groups, despite being Muslims, has been a persistent phenomenon in Pakistan. For, it was not Islam that kept them united but their linguistic, cultural and historic bonds. Islam could not supplant these bonds in the same manner that it could in the Muslim-minority provinces of British India. In these provinces, especially in north India, due to their minority status, the Islamic identity was very salient.
As Pakistan developed, the process of Islamization, which stressed a religious (non-territorial) rather than a secular national identity, was to further impede the idea of a common identity. Islamization put the people in a dilemma concerning their identity: whether they were first Muslims and then Pakistanis, or first Pakistani and then Muslims. For example, a survey of 2,000 young Pakistanis in the 18–27 age group found that three quarters identified themselves first as Muslims and only secondly as Pakistanis. Just 14 per cent defined themselves as citizens of Pakistan first.
The issue of sectarianism distorted the possibility of religion providing a national identity. Islamization has ensured that the state itself has started insisting on seeing all its citizens through the prism of religious affiliation. For example, security clearance forms in many government organizations, including the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and Special Plans Division (SPD), require the applicant to state his sect, name of murshid (religious mentor), name of mosque usually prayed in, as well as zat (tribal affiliation).
An interesting development in the identity debate has been the gradual Arabization of the lingua franca, Urdu. By trying to deny its sub-continental roots, Pakistan has tried to locate them in the deserts of Arabia and the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim in Sindh in ad 712. As a spin-off, there is now a linguistic struggle that reflects the identity dilemma of Pakistan. The gradual Arabization is indicated by the replacements of sub-continental words by their Arab counterparts, like Ramzan by Ramadan, Khuda hafiz by Allah hafiz, namaz by Salat and even Pakistan by Al-Bakistan.
Pakistan’s inability to develop an identity was because… it could not resolve the contradiction between denying any Indianness in its identity and failure to look beyond India by clinging to the two-nation theory.
Resultantly, Pakistan has resorted to the time-tested tactic of raising the threat from India as a cement to bind the multiple identities of Pakistan. Thus, even after seven decades, Pakistani identity continues to be defined negatively as anti-Indian. While this can hardly be the basis of a sustainable national identity, it has implications for Indo-Pak relations. In fact, as soon as India became the negative reference point for defining Pakistani nationalism, there was no way Pakistan could develop a new identity for itself, or develop normal relations with India. That is the continuing tragedy of Pakistan.