Our Elusive Nationhood

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By

Ali Sarwar Naqvi[1]

Pakistan was born in a hurry. Even the 1940 Lahore Resolution of the All India Muslim League did not envisage one Muslim state carved out of the departing British Empire, and till the summer of 1946, its birth was not certain. The British Cabinet Mission plan, which continued to be debated at this time, would have created three categories of A, B and C states, separate entities which could have stayed together, or gone their different ways. However, the transfer of power by the British would have been made to one successor state. Then came the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946, when the Quaid-e-Azam publicly and unequivocally declared that the Muslim League would henceforth fight for a separate homeland, a clearly defined Muslim state, rather than accept any kind of constitutional or political arrangement that would provide Muslims with constitutional protection and political rights, as had hitherto been demanded. The name of the new state, Pakistan, was also fortuitously coined in time for the idea to be concretized. In two days short of a year, on August 14, 1947,   the state of Pakistan was born. No other state in the world has been conceived and created within a year, which is a record that attests to the uniqueness of the epochal phenomenon.

Of course, historians and political scientists and others have dated Pakistan’s genesis to much farther back in time.  Many date it from the 1940 Muslim League Resolution, and some go back to the 1857 Indian uprising against British rule, and call it the first War of Independence. Some date it from Muhammad Bin Qasim’s foray into Sindh in the seventh century A.D., and then there are people like the late anthropologist Dr. A.H. Dani and the politician-writer and my friend, AitzazAhsan, who trace Pakistan’s origin to thousands of years back to the Indus Valley civilization. This, however, is a matter of perception, and may even have some logical validity. But the objective fact of Pakistan’s birth within a year of its actual conceptualization cannot be denied or ignored.

Pakistan was born and established with the standard accoutrements of a functioning modern state, but the sudden birth resulted in the fact that it had no nation-hood. It had the elements that could constitute a nation, like-minded peoples and nationalities, with cultural affinities and commonalities and a common religion, but no nationhood as such. For a time it seemed that the all-encompassing nation-hood that was so conspicuously lacking at its birth would eventually emerge and make Pakistan an integral nation-state. The adoption of our first Constitution in 1956, after years spent at evolving consensus, was heralded as evidence of this progression. At its tenth birth anniversary in 1957, it looked like Pakistan, which had finally become a Republic, was indeed a nation. But beneath the apparent calm, tensions and contradictions were brewing and even festering, which inevitably came up to the surface in the years that followed.

The state of Pakistan began to undergo severe jolts.In 1958 came the first military intervention. Then came a disastrous war in 1965, which brought to the fore the alienation of the eastern wing with the western part, leading to a bitter and acrimonious separation in 1971. Another military take-over in 1977, brought about a double jeopardy, unconstitutional government accompanied by the state espousal of a so-called Islamic ideology, which was imposed on an ignorant and largely illiterate populace. The years that followed saw this unfortunate country live through the painful legacy of both military rule and Islamic religiosity.  While the former is currently at bay, the latter plagues our life as a nation. It has spawned ceaseless violence and terrorism, and in its increasingly intolerant and divisive mode, now threatens the very survival of the state that was created.

The quagmire that we find ourselves in is largely due to the fact that the new state of Pakistan failed to develop its nationhood. When it came into being, the state of Pakistan had no nationhood, as other normal states do when they become independent. India, Sri Lanka, even Bangladesh, at their birth as states, had their respective nationhood. But Pakistan was a special state, created abinitio that needed to create its nationhood. In the beginning, in the first flush of independence, it did not feel its absence, which was how things were till it achieved its ten years of independent existence in 1957. Then, before the new nation could crystallize its nationhood, it was confronted with a coup against the state, then a war, followed by the separation of its eastern wing, and yet again a coup. By the time ZiaulHaq came to power, Pakistan was still without a nationhood of its own. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when Zia launched his Islamisation policy, Pakistan drifted into religion as a substitute for nationhood. This fateful mis-direction was accompanied by a whole set of negative factors, the lack of a cohesive glue for keeping all our provinces together and consequent progressive alienation of the smaller provinces, abdication of the responsibility of the state in regard to dispensing non-religious education to our youth, and rise of intolerance as a result of rival religious groups competing for political space and power. Failure to develop our nationhood also led to lack of commitment of growing segments of the populace to our state and constitution, and hence the temptation for the military to step in every now and then and take over the reins of government.

Now I will explain what I mean by nationhood, since it is the burden of my argument that we omitted to develop it and have thus come to grief. Nationhood to me is the aggregate of all elements that define us as a nation. There are the pre-existing elements as land, people, language, culture and religion. These existent elements have to be woven or gelled or blended into an integral whole, which defines the nation. It is largely done through education and culture. The state has to inculcate nationhood through the teaching of Pakistan’s historical genesis, its conceptual framework and its contemporary relevance. It is reinforced by literature and poetry, song, dance and music, all constituting what is called the folklore of a people. The state promotes this culture and thus establishes its identity in the comity of nations.

In education, Pakistan studies should have been distinct from the teaching of religion. We have tended to confuse our nationhood with our religion. The two are not exclusionary but they are also not overlapping or identical. Being a Muslim is not the same as being a Pakistani. Muslims inhabit around 50 plus states in the world, andPakistan is just one of many other states which are also Muslim. Today there are around 90 million Pakistanis below the age of 25,   about half the total population of the country.  While the older generation has some perception of the nascent nationhood that had been slowly taking shape in all these years, the younger half of the population has no clear understanding of Pakistan’s origin, its history or its conceptual framework and its relevance to their lives. They all lack their nationhood.

As regards the mix-up of religion and nationhood, I will relate a personal anecdote. Last Ramzan, I was invited to an iftar by a religious scholar who knew me from the time I was Ambassador in Jordan. The gathering consisted of many religious luminaries, including MaulanaSheerani, the current Chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council. When I was introduced to the guests as a former Ambassador of Pakistan, one of them said with great aplomb, “you were an Ambassador of Islam”. I replied, with not only concern at his confusion of two distinct and different roles, but with some embarrassment as well, and said “Maulana, I was not the Ambassador of Islam, I merely had the honour of representing the state of Pakistan”. I must say that my comment seemed to make all of them uneasy about me for the rest of the evening.

This confusion has led to a grievous consequence. The religious parties have begun to feel that they owe no allegiance to the state of Pakistan. This was amply manifest in the MaulanaFazlullah led Taliban movement in Swat three years ago. Even though the insurgency in Swat was eventually suppressed, there has grown a notion in many religious quarters that the state does not deserve allegiance if one follows the precepts of Islam. One sees an alarming degree of disregard of the state that is now in evidence. This kind of attitude is sapping the very sinews of Pakistan as a state and nation. For one, it lends itself to support of religiously inspired transnational movements like Al Qaeda, which has done us enormous harm. Most of the brutal terrorism that now afflicts our towns and cities come from foreign elements that have infiltrated Pakistan. Secondly, it has also engendered intolerance and virulent bigotry. The various religious minorities in Pakistan seem to suffer grievous discrimination and suffering as a result of the peculiar religiosity that has entered our national psyche. Unless the state resolves to proactively deal with this drift, the trend will grow into a mainstream ethos and drown our nascent nationalism altogether.

Unfortunately, apart from the problem of the confusion between religion and the state, we have another serious issue to deal with. That is the disaffection and frustration of smaller or marginal entities within the state. We saw the disastrous effects of this problem when East Pakistan broke away from the federation. The break-away of the Eastern wing was a terrible body blow to the state, and it is difficult even today to accept this calamity with equanimity. Some argue that this was inevitable, given the geographical distance and cultural diversity between the present day Pakistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan.

That may or may not be true, but it should not be forgotten that the commitment and contribution of Muslims from the eastern wing was greater than those of the western wing in the creation of Pakistan. The decision of the then East Pakistan to go its own way from that of West Pakistan was a result of disaffection and frustration with the treatment meted out to that province by West Pakistan. In my view, the geographical distance and the cultural diversity were factors in the break-up of the original Pakistan, but not the cause of the unhappy separation. The story of how this discord developed is long and painful. Soon after the birth of Pakistan, strong oligarchies in West Pakistan appropriated the power centres of the state, largely to the exclusion of East Pakistanis. The break-away of East Pakistan and the establishment of the new state of Bangladesh was a result of our failure to integrate the population of that wing in the state of Pakistan.

Moreover, we did not learn from our mistakes in East Pakistan. The treatment of Baluchistan over the years is again leading to disenchantment and alienation, this time of the Baluchi people. Repeated military action taken to quell the “insurgencies” in Baluchistan since 1975 have made the people of that province averse to the state of Pakistan. Sheer frustration at not being able to break the stranglehold of an unsympathetic centre has led to the demand for separation that is now increasingly being voiced by some political elements in Baluchistan. Half-hearted measures like the Huqooq-e-Baluchistan package havenot been successful in placating the Baluchis, and the situation is reported to be deteriorating rather than improving. There are reports of the Pakistani flag and the national anthem being disowned by Baluchi nationalists. Are we going to see a repeat of East Pakistan/Bangladesh? As if this is not the only case of alienation, there are similar feelings, if not as accentuated, in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan must develop a national ethos that promotes the integration of the constituent parts in the national whole. For this to be attained, the state must reinvent itself in a manner that it becomes a federation in reality rather than merely in name. Some measures have been taken in this regard. Two important steps towards this objective were taken by the present government by legislating the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, whereby considerable powers were devolved to the provinces, and the granting of more financial allocations to the provinces under the revised NFC awards. Of course both these decisions were seen as providing more autonomy to the provinces without regard to their capacity for full and proper use of the additional powers and bigger resources. Be it as it may, the two measures are steps in the right direction. The point is that the federation must evolve into a real federation, rather than continue functioning as a centralized state.

Of course, here too the right balance has to be struck. A swing towards excessive decentralization may further dilute our national identity. The state must continue to assume the responsibility for major areas of national development. Thus, even if health and education have been decentralized under the 18th amendment, the task of coordinating the work of the provinces in these areas, and then interacting with international donor agencies, particularly the United Nations, must be retained by the federal government. We have enormous problems of population growth, of environmental degradation and climate change, of combating the drug trade, of human trafficking, of international terrorism, which can only be handled effectively by Islamabad. It must be remembered that the international community, which is now highly globalised, is geared to working with national governments rather than their constituent units.

Interestingly enough, however, while there is this emerging mind-set of a dis-regard of the state and nation in preference to Islamic adherence or provincial chauvinism, there is often evidence of a strong national sentiment that springs up spontaneously from time to time. Our public reaction to wars, natural disasters, and even cricket matches, manifests a nation-wide response that sweeps the land.  In the 1965 and 1971 wars, Pakistanis in the western wing gave overwhelming support to the armed forces for fighting in defence of the country. The 2005 earthquake shocked the nation and galvanized country-wide expressions of support and sympathy. Voluntary rescue and relief teams from all over the country headed to Azad Kashmir and surrounding earthquake-affected areas and began their work in helping the affected population. The same response was seen in the 2010 floods in the Punjab and Sindh.  On the occasion of cricket matches of the Pakistani national team with India or even with other major teams, as those of England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa, the whole nation watches the matches on the electronic media with keen interest and celebrates in case of victory or mopes and sulks in case of defeat.  Ordinary Pakistanis in towns and cities and even in rural villages, let alone those in the upper levels of society, generally are avid listenersof national news and commentaries.  All these are manifestations of our identity as a nation.

Secondly, Pakistanis abroad clearly are identifiable as a distinct community. In my career in the Foreign Service, I have observed and interacted with Pakistani communities the world over. Their identity is so distinct that they are hardly ever mistaken for Indians or Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans. Abroad they are also very welcoming and accommodating to their compatriots. In New York and Washington, when I used to take taxis, Pakistani taxi-drivers quite frequently refused to take the fare from me. In New York’s Jackson Heights, the Pakistani-Indian market place, I have seen desi restaurant owners charge less from Pakistani customers. Let us not forget that the Pakistani diaspora is now contributing a sizeable amount of remittances to our foreign exchange inflow that keeps our economy afloat.

Our study of nationhood has brought out the following:

  1. Pakistan was born without nationhood.
  2. While it seemed for a while that we had developed our nationhood, the repeated blows to the political system as a result of take-over of power by military rulers, followed by a resort to use of religion, undermined stability and created widespread confusion of religion and nationhood. It also aborted the slowly emerging nationhood and has led to, in certain segments of society, the disregard of the state over religious adherence.
  3. At the same time, there is ample evidence of spontaneous manifestation of a sort of uncultivated nationhood at times of crisis or when national interest is generated in specific situations.
  4. Pakistani identity is quite pronounced in alien environments.

It would be fair to conclude, therefore, that our nationhood, though undeveloped and apparently aborted, has nonethelessemerged over the years, it seems quite by itself, but tends to be elusive.

Looking at the problem of an undeveloped nationhood, I take heart from the fact that sixty some years are but a short interlude in the life of a nation. A span of two or three generations is more of a beginning than an end. The United States is still considered a young state even after two hundred and forty five years, compared to the older European nation-states. It is to be hoped that we can develop our nationhood over the coming years. Pakistan may, however, take longer than others did to develop its nationhood. This is not entirelyunusual, Italy became a nation many years after it had developed into a unified state. Of course, in this day and age, when change is exponential, and the internal and the domestic are exposed to the impact of the external world more than ever before, we may not have the time and the luxury of developing our nationhood gradually and incrementally. We will have to put our house in order sooner than later. That is the challenge confronting the state of Pakistan.


The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.