Defining Pakistani nationalism

Pakistan remains a state in search of a nation

It is a question that has vexed Pakistan ever since it came into being in 1947 on the back of Jinnah’s two-nation theory. Simply put, that involved seeing the subcontinent’s Muslims as a distinct nation who deserved their own state, resulting in a geographically separated, ethnically disparate but religiously homogenous construct called Pakistan. India views the failure of the two-nation theory behind the 1971 breaking away of Bangladesh from this construct, but that does not tell the complete story. The emergence of Bangladesh was as much due to the absence of democracy, representative politics and federal structure in the erstwhile Pakistani state as it was due to the failure of a common religion as a basis for statehood. In any event, the emergence of an independent Bangladesh created even more doubts and questions on what exactly constitutes the Pakistani nation. Consciously and unconsciously, Pakistan has ended up trying to become an antithesis of India.

Attempts were made in the late 70s and 80s to infuse Pakistan with a more Middle-Eastern/Central Asian identity in an effort to dilute the geographic and cultural connection with the Indian subcontinent. However, notwithstanding the bloodiness of Partition, Pakistan’s most influential province, Punjab, is linked by language, culture and cuisine with the Indian subcontinent. So is Sindh, the second largest province. The realities of these links made it difficult for the shapers of Pakistani nationhood to deny links with obvious subcontinental (or South Asian) roots.

In an op-ed in The News, Ahmed Qureishi takes another look at the conundrum of Pakistani nationalism, but fails to evolve a reasonable position. There was no Pakistan before 1947, just as there was no Republic of India before 1950 so the question of which country was ‘partitioned’ out of the other is an irrelevant. But it is inconsistent to suggest Pakistan existed in some form since the Muslim invasion of the subcontinent a millenium ago while at the same time denying the religious dimension of Pakistani nationalism (and hence, the two-nation theory). Similarly, tracing back the roots of Pakistani ethnicity to Central Asia does not sufficiently distinguish it from its Indian linkage, because many Indians, especially in the Northern states, trace their roots back to the Aryan invasion.

The real answer to evolving a Pakistani identity is not to look at history for an answer, for the history of Pakistan is inextricably entangled with the history of India, or as some would argue, was a part of it until 1947. The answer lies in looking towards the future; for whatever reason, the Pakistani state is a reality today. Its more urgent need is to evolve a consensus on where it wants to go from here, not where it came from. For different reasons, the same holds for India too.

Related Link: Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot.

8 thoughts on “Defining Pakistani nationalism”

  1. Interesting point.

    I always wondered, why Pakistan chose the Arabic script of Urdu language. As far I know Urdu is a derivative of Hindi with intentional inclusion of farsi & Arbi words to make it sound Islamic.

    Hindi and Bangla languages and origins of their scripts can be dated back to thousands of years but what is the past of Urdu?

    There are many languages spoken in Pakistan like Panjabi, postu etc. I wonder what is the treatment of these languages by the Pakistani government. Perhaps they are written in Arabic script too.

  2. Rezwan

    Here’s a link to the Wikipedia’s entry on Urdu

    It is a beautiful language, and I think Urdu poetry and its link with fine etiquette is sublime.

    Why it was made the national language? It was probably foisted on the erstwhile Pakistan to avoid favouring either Punjabi or Bangla, which were major languages at that time.

  3. Nations all imagine a distant past, Nitin. Such is the beast of nationalism. Pakistan’s fundamental dichotomy – secular state and religious homeland – creates the push and pull that has dictated the political and social life. Lack of a Constitution, Judiciary, Electorate all exacerbate the issue.
    You are right that the future is where the state needs to look at but, please, don’t dismiss history, and us historians, if only so that we can refute asinine stuff like that editorial by Ahmed Quraishi.

  4. Sepoy,

    Agree. History and historians do have a very important role to play in society.

    My point is that the quest for national identity has taken Pakistan on very shaky interpretations of its history. That causes a disorientation in the public which can manifest itself destructively. So instead of chasing a dubious dogmatic concept of nationhood and rewriting the past to suit that, Pakistan is better off defining what it wants to be.

    In a way, elements of the previous BJP government tried to do a similar thing with Indian history; to rewrite it to suit its interpretation of Hindutva and Indian-ness. The current government is trying to undo that. Thanks to democracy, it is unlikely that in a longer term, any one will be able to impose its dogmatic version of history on the country. But even if democracy puts a natural check on selective reinterpretation of Indian history, the governments would be better off focusing on the future.

  5. There are many in Pakistan who repudiate Pakistan’s connection to India. They insist that they have more in common with Arabs, Persians and Turks than Hindus.

    To promote this view is to deny the past. Like you said, Nitin, Pakistan’s and India’s history is intertwined, as its future.

  6. Pakistanis see themselves racially same as most of ther South Asians. But it was Indians who tried to classify them as Middle Eastern…no Pakistani would ever consider themselve of Arab (Arabs were never in huge presence in the subcontinent) or Central Asian decent…Pakistanis are hiers to the Indus Valley people who were Dravidians which was conqured by Aryan tribes which constitute most if todays Indian population so Pakistanis are the orignal people of Subcontinent not you Aryan Indians. Today Dravidians face same discrimination in South India. Pakistani are Dravidan converts to Islam.

  7. As the author said only two of Pakistans provinces belong to the Indic cultural sphere. Across the Indus NWFP and Baluchistan firmly belong to the Iranic sphere. Previously before the invasions by Pashtuns from Afghanistan present day NWFP was populated by the Indic Gandharian peoples. Many great Sanskritic scholars including Panini and maybe even Kautilya were Gandharians. The fac that Pakistanis are Dravidians is totally wrong. No Dravidian l;anguages are spoken in Pakistan and even the average Pakistani Punjabi is fairer than most North Indians. In Sindh only the upper castes are light skinned. The descendants of the Gandharians are the people of northern Pakistan ie the Kohistanis and Chitralis, but they are usually fair haired and often have blue eyes. Lightskin is universal amongst them, so even these archaic Indic people do not have a trace of Dravidian bloodin them, although many Iranic Balochis are almost black.

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